Imagining a Ban


In recent weeks, Cuban policies limiting citizens’ access to certain goods and services have been liberalized.  Farmers no longer are required to purchase materials from state-run stores, and it’s now possible for more individuals to rent cars. 

Restrictions on personal cell phone ownership have been eased, and bans lifted on the purchase of electronic or electrical consumer items of all sorts, including computers, video players, televisions, pressure cookers, rice cookers, electric bicycles, microwave ovens and car alarms.

Raul Castro’s reforms have been scrutinized closely for practical as well as political significance.  Apparently desirable, they are filled with irony.  In a nation where most individuals are not allowed to purchase a car, car alarms seem somewhat beside the point.  The scarcity of many basic food items and the prohibitive cost of others make the possibility of possessing an electric rice cooker or microwave seem amusing at best.

While the sudden availability of televisions, computers and cell phones has created a bit of a stir in the world outside the Island, Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez and others suggest Raul Castro’s easing of restrictions instituted by his brother Fidel is nothing more than bowing to the inevitable.  At this point, there is no stopping the influx of technology into the country, so it makes sense to get ahead of the curve and gain political advantage wherever possible.  Even more cynical observers suggest that easy availability of cell phones simply provides one more way for the government to keep track of its citizens.

In any event, the reforms have been noted with cautious approval and general agreement that, while the reforms are lovely, they probably are cost-prohibitive for most Cubans.  Writing in the April 1 Washington Post, Manuel Roig-Franzia notes that “Cuban state workers make an average of $19 a month… (while) car rentals in Cuba – also managed by the military – are among the most expensive in Latin America, with vehicles typically going for as much as $100 a day.”

The additional fact that such items and services must be purchased with Cuban convertible pesos, a stronger currency than the national pesos paid state workers makes things more difficult.  Cubans who receive tips from tourists or have money sent in from abroad have access to convertible pesos, but the existence of a de facto dual monetary system does little to increase purchasing power across the board.

The same issues arise when it comes to a less-publicized but symbolically important March 31 move by the Cuban government to lift restrictions on Cubans’ freedom to enjoy resort beaches, stay at luxury hotels or purchase services provided by the hotels.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and consequent economic difficulties for the Castro regime, the practice of keeping Cubans and tourists apart became so rigid it was known as “tourist apartheid”.  Some of the most beautiful places in the country were off-limits to Cubans: Varadero Beach, Cayo Santa Maria, the Vinales Valley in Pinar del Rio Province.

For most Cubans , being allowed to move beyond that “apartheid” and indulge themselves in the luxury of a hotel stay will be as symbolic as the right to purchase a computer or DVD; it simply is too expensive. A quick look at current rates published by TripAdvisor tells the tale: a night in Havana?  $201 to $369.  A little stroll along Varadero at sunset?  $169 to $305.  Guardalavaca? $255.  Guardala? Coming in high, at $455.  There was a listing at Guama for $3, with a description  that proclaims “twice the charms”.  If not a misprint, it’s either the world’s best bargain or the world’s worst decision: who knows?

In any event, it doesn’t take a genius to do the math.  Quoting Roig-Franzia again, “on (the salary of the typical Cuban), it would take nearly two years to earn enough for one night at the Saratoga.” 

Resort living and luxury hotels aren’t for everyone, of course.  Even as an American with a perfect right to head off to the Hilton, I prefer to make other choices.   I suspect there are Cubans who feel the same.  If I were Cuban, I’d be far more interested in regaining my right to travel to places like the Vinales Valley.

One of Cuban’s most remarkable natural attractions, it’s been declared a National Natural Monument and listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1999 as “a cultural landscape enriched by traditional farm and village architecture.”  Surrounded by mogotes with rounded tops and steep slopes, the valley is a luxurious mix of tobacco, taro and bananas, unusual plant life and exquisite vistas.   For decades Cubans showed off their treasure, until access was limited by the government.  In the words of Rafael Ferro Salas, “The old road was closed.  Now only the rented vehicles of foreign tourists travel the new route, and those carrying visitors invited to the spot by government officials.  For Cubans who live in the island nation, traveling is prohibited on the access road leading to the valley’s vantage point, the site where the view is loveliest and most unforgettable.”

In words of unutterable poignancy, he goes on to add, “Pinar del Rio is full of natural beauties.  The most beautiful sites are being left like a footprint in the fog of memory.  So far no one knows when the day will come when they can go back to traveling among them.”  (CubaNet, October 1, 2004)

Writing in Babalu, Val Prieto notes some uncertainty whether areas such as the Vinales Valley are now accessible to Cubans.  It may be the lifting of restrictions applies strictly to tourist beaches, hotels and services.  Whatever the final result, the changes certainly stimulate thought.  Whatever happens in the next months, whether Varadero, the Cays, the Vinales Valley and other prohibited sites become open to all Cubans, it remains a fact that for years Cubans have been barred from their own country, banned from visiting sights celebrated world-wide for their beauty and historical significance.

For a Cuban to be banned from Vinales is not unlike an American being banned from Yosemite, prevented from traveling to or enjoying its splendor because the government prefers to reserve it for those who will pay well for the experience.

What others experience can be hard to imagine.  But imagine, for a moment, being banned from the Everglades while tour boats filled with foreigners are granted special passes to enjoy the wonders of the River of Grass:

Imagine being banned from Anasazi ruins throughout the Four Corners area because a politician prefers to show off the sites to his cronies:

Imagine being banned from Cape Hatteras because the government intends to restrict contact between you and visitors from other countries:

Imagine being banned from Death Valley for the sole purpose of buttressing your government’s sense of entitlement and control over your life:

Imagine being banned from Niagara Falls simply because the government has the power to do so and decides it will do so for the simple delight of exercising power:

For some people in the world, such banishments are a bitter reality, limitations on freedom imposed by rulers intent on controlling other peoples’ lives.  It’s impossible to look at the world and not understand that such bans lead inexorably to other constraints.  The freedom to travel, to assemble, to speak without fear with whomever we choose, the freedom to participate fully in the life of a country or community – all those freedoms begin to erode when a valley, an historic site or an occasion is declared by the state to be “off limits”, made a punishable offense for the sole purpose of maintaining power over individuals.

As I read about the possibility of change in Cuba, and ponder the strange significance of open beaches and hotel stays for the cause of freedom, I can’t help remembering an expression I once heard someone use in quite a different context.   “I’m banned, and I’m proud,” he said. From my perspective, it was an odd statement.  I suspect a few Cubans would find it even more odd.



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If Yoani Sanchez Read Your Blog


 Wednesday night in Havana, Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez read her speech accepting this year’s Ortega y Gasset prize for digital journalism to friends gathered in her apartment.  She was prevented from traveling to Spain to accept the prize in person by a regime which appears increasingly distressed by the attention shown the young blogger.  An interview aired on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition provides an update and a bit of context for those not familiar with her work.

I have been following the story of Yoani Sanchez for some time.  When I first wrote the following essay, one of my greatest concerns was the translation of her words.  I do not read or speak Spanish, and the response she posted in March, just after Cuban authorities began slowing access to her blog, appeared on the internet in a variety of forms.

Now, I have a translation which I feel comfortable posting.  Provided by Jose Ma Gonzalez, a native of Spain, and Jane Reinhart-Gonzalez, I am confident it gives a good sense of Ms. Sanchez’ style as well as an accurate reflection of her words.  Many thanks to Jose and Janie, who do translation work professionally in Galveston, Texas.

Some of you who stop by will have read this before.  Nevertheless, considering the latest developments in Ms. Sanchez’ life, it is worth another read, and certainly worth posting for those who do not know the story of this year’s winner of the Ortega y Gasset prize.

Yoani Sanchez haunts my life.  Slender, dark-haired, she walks Havana streets thinking of toasters and lemons, passing into and through the shadows of the Castros, fingers curled around the flash drive hidden in her pocket.  She is walking to a liason, a tryst, an encounter hidden from the eyes of the world.  Her desire is not for a man, but for a computer monitor: her longing and hunger, to send her words out into the world.

Yoani Sanchez is a young Cuban woman who blogs from Havana.  She blogs rather well, with a worldwide readership.  The circumstances of her life, combined with her words and her incisive intelligence, make her someone worth reading.  They also make her someone to fear, particularly if you are a Cuban official whose only longing and intention is to maintain order and preserve the status quo.  Dictatorships will smile benignly on philosophers and thinkers who fuss about grand issues like freedom, censorship and ineffective government using large, rectangular words.  But when pretty young bloggers begin to describe the realities of life in words everyone can understand – toasters and oxen and lemons and milk – dictatorships pay attention.

I first attended to Yoani Sanchez when I saw her name – and nothing more – posted on a website.  Curious, I began to search.  I found an article about her blog in the December 22, 2007 Wall Street Journal, and was moved by the simple description of what she does:

 “On a recent morning, Yoani Sanchez took a deep breath and gathered her nerve for an undercover mission: posting an Internet chronicle about life in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.”

“To get around Cuba’s restrictions on Web access, the waif-like 32-year-old posed as a tourist to slip into an Internet cafe in one of the city’s luxury hotels, which normally bar Cubans.  Dressed in gray surf shorts, T-shirt and lime-green espadrilles, she strode toward a guard at the hotel’s threshold and flashed a wide smile.  The guard, a towering man with a shaved head, stepped aside.  ‘I think I’m able to do this because I look so harmless,’ says Ms. Sanchez, who says she is sometimes mistaken for a teenager.  Once inside the cafe, she attached a flash memory drive to the hotel computer and, in quick, intense movements, uploaded her material.”

Equally skilled at balancing action with reflection, Ms. Sanchez’ own words about her extraordinary routine are modest.  “The sensation of losing fear, of risking, is a sensation that is normally irreversible.  After you cross certain lines, there is no way back.”  After a lifetime of internalizing the constraints of life in a dictatorship, she describes her blog as a way to escape her “internal policeman”, a way “to push the limits, to find the line where the internal limits end and the real limits begin.”  Sometimes, Sanchez suggests, even a child’s game of “let’s pretend” can be useful.  “You have to believe that you are free and try to act like it,” she says.  “Little by little, acting as though you are free can be contagious.”

Reading her words and tracing the contours of her life, I found them remarkable, if somewhat removed from my own.  The single point of intersection between us seemed to be our blogs.  Produced in quite different circumstances, for different audiences and to significantly different purposes, they are identical as expressions of a writer’s passion: to have words read, appreciated, and absorbed as agents of transformation and change.  However, the initial differences in format I found between Ms. Sanchez’ blogs and my own are instructive.

Like most Cuban bloggers, I had chosen to remain anonymous.  Whether grounded in caution, fear, or simple preference, anonymity can provide comfort, a sense of privacy and security.  It also makes issues of honesty and accountability less relevant.  Ms. Sanchez, who signs her name and posts her photo on her Web site, appears to have few problems with honesty and accountability; she is quite willing to express her opinions and defend them publicly from the very heart of a dictatorship.  Such forthrightness earns her a prerogative or two.  Yoani Sanchez, 32 years old and living 90 miles off our shores in a crumbling nation which would prefer not to be portrayed in such detail, has every right to turn to a 61-yuear-old, comfortable and completely un-oppressed woman and inquire, “And you.  Where is your picture?  what is your name?  Tell me your convictions.”

As I removed my avatar and replaced it with a photograph, as I began signing my name to my work and pondered the implications of doing so, it was the challenge of Yoani Sanchez’ words which resonated in my mind: “Once you experience the flavor of saying what you think, of publishing it and signing it with your name, well, there’s no turning back.  One of the first things we have to do, a great way to begin to change, is to be more honest about saying what you think.”

Ms. Sanchez has a history of saying what she thinks.  Admitted to the University of Havana for study of philology – the study of language and literature – she nurtured a love for Latin American writers.  But her thesis topic, Dictatorships in Latin American Literature, brought her academic career to an end.  “The thesis wasn’t overly critical,” Sanchez says, “but the mere act of defining what a dictatorship is in an academic paper made people really nervous, because the definition was a portrait of Cuba.”

Forced to move from academia to the public forums of the Internet, she unnerved the regime even more: not by overtly political criticisms or attacks on the Castro brothers themselvs, but by her vivid descriptions of daily life.  On March 24, 2008 Cuban authorities became nervous enough to take action, blocking or slowing access to Sanchez’ blog.  According to Sanchez, government censors placed filters that delayed viewing of her Web page on a server in Germany.  Her response, offered here in translation, has been described as classic Sanchez:

I recognize that I have been misbehaving.  I rebel against orders; I look for lemons that never appear; I demand excuses that never arrive; and – a great absurdity of mine – I put my opinions in a blog, with photo and name included.

As you can see, bcause of these thirty-two impertinent years, I am not being corrected.  As a result, the anonymous censors of our ravenous cyberspace have wanted to enclose me in the room, turn off the light and not let my friends enter inside.  That, translated to the language of the Internet, means to block my site, to filter my Web page; in short, to puncture the Blog so that my compatriots cannot read it.

Ever since a few days ago, “Generacio Y” is merely an error message on the screen of many Cuban computers – another site blocked for the “monitored” Internet users of the Island.  My words, my text, and that of other bloggers and digital journalists, have caused the presser foot of the inquisitors to do its ridiculous part.  We have received a slap on the face, the “severe wink” and an admonishment from these arrogant and rebellious adolescents.  Nevertheless, the reprimand is so useless and pointless that it is an embarrassment, and so easy to outmaneuver that it turns into an incentive.

“This breath of fresh air has disheveled the hair of bureaucrats and censors,” she said in a later telephone interview, vowing to continue her blog.  “Anyone with a bit of computer skills knows how to get around them.  The aim of government censors is to block readership in Cuba, where people have limited access to Internet.  They are admitting that no alternative way of thinking can exist in Cuba, but people will continue reading us somehow.  There is no censorship that can stop people who are determined to access the internet.”

Another bit of fresh air blew through Cuba and the worldwide blogging community on Friday, April 4.  On that day, Sanchez’ creativity and persistence was rewrded when her Generacion Y  blog received one of Spain’s top journalism awards, the Ortega y Gasset prize for digital journalism.  The Spanish newspaper El Pais, which awards the prize annually, said Sanchez won it for her “shrewdness” in overcoming hurdles to freedom of expression in Cuba, her “vivacious” style and her drive to join the “global space of citizen journalism”.

Speaking with the Reuters News Service by telephone from her home in Havana, Ms. Sanchez said, “This is great encouragement for Cuban bloggers, who are still at an embryonic stage.  It recognizes that Cuban blogs can be a parallel source of information, reflection and opinions independent from Cuba’s official media.”

 It does much more than that.  Winning a significant prize in a first-world country gets you dinner, a check, an NPR interview and a swing around the talk-show circuit.  In third world dictatorships, winning an international prize can help save your life, as the additional attention and scrutiny set up a useful barrier between the writer and those who would silence a voice.

In a recent blog, I touched briefly on the moral and ethical dimensions of art.  Regardless of the medium, decisions are made by artists at every turn.  Am I working for myself alone, or am I willing to consider the world in which I live?  Am I willing to accept responsiblity for my creation, or will I refuse to engage criticism or disagreement?  To the extent that my art touches other lives, what effect do I wish to have?

The same questions of morality and ethics arise in blogging.  It is easy for us to forget that decisions are being made on a daily basis because the process itself is so easy.  You make coffee, you turn on the computer, you begin to type.  It is even easier to abdicate personal responsibility.  Challenged or rebuffed, facing disagreement or simple misunderstanding, we can choose to turn off our computers and walk away, leaving a trail of words, photos, videos, cartoon and .gifs in our wake without consequence.  Alone in front of our monitors, we are free to consider only those who choose to make their presence known to us, or we can imagine with sympathy and attentive curiosity the faceless ones who also read our words.

The simple fact is that we need to stop, and think about what we are doing.  I do not mean to argue here for one kind of blogging over another; this is not a criticism of cartoons, videos or smiley faces.  It is not meant to be dismissive of casual or shallow posting and, above all, it certainly is not a rejection of hanging out and having fun on the Internet.  All those things have their place.  But, when I think of Yoani Sanchez, their place is quite beside the point.

The point is this.  Imagine Yoani Sanchez, leaving her house on a delicious May afternoon with lime-green espadrilles on her feet, a flash drive in her pocket and a map to the nearest internet connection in her head.  Imagine her languid smile as she slips past the guard, her studied casualness as she sits at a rented computer and draws her treasure from her pocket.  Imagine her relief as the latest set of entries uploads properly, fleeing to the safety of German servers.  Imagine, then, Yoani Sanchez with an additional ten minutes of allotted time, deciding to indulge herself in the luxury of a quick surf across the Net.  With a click of the keys, in a sudden, unbelievable instance of serendipity, she arrives at your page, and begins to read.

What would Yoani Sanchez think?



 © Text copyright Linda Leinen 2008

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