Kilobytes of Discord
In Cuba, Blogger Yoani Sánchez’s Protests Result in a New Kind of Revolution
Translated by Alicia Sewald
Yoani Sánchez is known for her blog Generación Y (Generation Y), which documents the experiences and frustrations of Cuba’s younger generation. Her blog brought her international attention and prestigious awards—as well as backlash from the Cuban government. On her blog, she denounces the government’s actions, including surveillance, threats, and even an alleged kidnapping. In 2009 she requested interviews from the two people who have the most influence on Cuba’s future. Her interview with President Barack Obama appeared in November. Raúl Castro declined to answer her questions.
Yoani Sánchez’s story could begin with her first post on April 9, 2007 about how the baseball playoffs serve to distract the population from political protest—the post that began her notorious fight for democracy. Or it could begin with her interview with the head of the most powerful country in the word. Instead, it starts with a kidnapping.
On November 6, 2009, Sánchez was walking down Los Presidentes Avenue to cover a civil protest against violence along with two other bloggers: Claudia Cadelo and Orlando Luis Pardo. Pardo’s girlfriend was along as well. Claudia Cadelo posted on her blog that they felt nervous but knew they “wouldn’t be alone.”
Pardo tried to ease the tension by joking about a man masturbating on Zapata Street in front of a group of people waiting for a bus. Sánchez joined in laughter with the others.
They were all laughing when an elegant Geely (a Chinese-made car), pulled over and parked. Three men stepped out. The bloggers immediately knew what was going to happen next.
“Looks like we are going to travel with comfort,” Sánchez said sarcastically.
As if he had heard her, one of the men walked directly towards her. When Pardo pointed his cell phone at him, another man yelled, “Don’t you film us!”
Cadelo managed to fire off an S.O.S via Twitter from her phone before two policemen who had arrived at the scene forced her in their car along with Pardo’s girlfriend. They were freed a couple of blocks away.
Meanwhile, the man grabbed Sánchez’s wrist, ordering her into the car.
“Show me your identification,” she demanded. “Where is the warrant?”
“I told you to get in the car, damn it,” he shouted.
Terrified, Sánchez screamed that a kidnapping was in progress. Dozens of people on the street heard her, yet no one intervened, despite the fact that the man taking her was not in uniform.
The other man cautioned the crowd not to get involved, adding that the bloggers were “counter-revolutionaries.”
As Sánchez refused to get in the car, the man talked to his boss on the phone, asking what to do now that the bloggers resist.
The answer from the man on the phone was clear when Sánchez’s captor hit her, then jerked her up, raising her skirt. He tried to force her into the car, grabbing at whatever he could hold on to, even her bare legs.
Sánchez continued to scream. She held on to the car door handle while the man smacked her knuckles. Then she did the only thing she could think of: She stole a paper from the man’s pants pocket and put it in her mouth.
Somehow they managed to force her into the car. Pardo was already inside, immobilized with his head on the floor of the vehicle. The Geely started moving.
Sánchez clenched her mouth closed as one of the three men pressed his knee to her chest. From the front passenger’s seat, he kept beating her so shewould let go of the paper. The only consolation were the chocked half-words of Pardo in the back seat telling her he was still alive.
“This is the end for you, Yoani. This is the end of your clown tricks,” said the man holding Pardo down.
With all of her 103 pounds in pain, her face red, and her legs up in the air, Sánchez raised her arm and grabbed the man’s testicles. As she tightened her grip, the man pressed harder at her chest. She thought he was going to choke her to death.
“Kill me already,” she gasped.
“Let her breathe,” said another of her captors.
Twenty minutes later, the car stopped and the man in the back seat pushed them both out like they were two bags of garbage.
“What happened to you?” asked a woman on the street when she saw the two trembling figures.
“A kidnapping,” Sánchez said.
Sánchez hugged Pardo and cried, thinking of her adolescent son, Teo. She later posted, “How am I going to look at him in the eye and tell him that his mother was publicly kidnapped just because she has a blog and writes her opinion in kilobytes?”
Even though Sánchez, Pardo and Cadelo blame Raúl Castro’s government for what happened to them, they have no way to prove it. The doctors at the public clinic who examined Sánchez after the attack reported that there were no signs of bruises and witnesses refused to corroborate any of the complaints filed. The Cuban press accused the three of “self-kidnapping.” The government wouldn’t answer calls or e-mails from the international press. All of the details of the alleged kidnapping that appear in this article were taken from the blogs of Sánchez, Pardo and Cadelo.
Human Rights Watch confirms the deteriorated state of human rights on the island, where the government consistently makes arbitrary arrests, rigs judiciary proceedings, and allows prisoners to languish in prison on charges of “dangerousness.” Sánchez wrote on her blog that her attack was the result of “the mad anger of one who knows that his days are numbered.”
From the blog to the world
Sánchez, 34, is a leader of Cuba’s new cyber-movement. She describes herself as being part of a generation that is marked by illegal emigration and frustration. Her blog’s name comes from the fact that her generation is also marked by a popularity of names starting with the letter Y, just like hers. She is married to Reynaldo Escobar, a writer who resigned from Government journalism in the 1980s. When she returned to Havana from Sweden after studying linguistics and literature to care for her ill parents, she saw the need for alternative sources of journalism and started to blog.
For a government accustomed to the nation’s press being their mouthpiece, this blog is a contradiction, a slap in the face. So much so that it is prohibited in Cuba. If you want to read the blog on the island, you have to do so in clandestine and expensive ways.
In another time, the government could have solved this problem easily: with no readers there is no dissemination and without dissemination, the “counter-revolutionary” message is worthless. But censorship does not work as well when it comes to the Internet. Just a little push and information goes around the world. And this is exactly what happened with Generación Y, published for the first time in 2007. Sánchez’s friends around the world linked to her blog from their own websites. Some international newspapers linked to her blog and thousands of people saw Cuba in a new light.
In 2008, the blog won the Ortega y Gasset, an award given by the Spanish newspaper El País of Spain. Raúl Castro’s government did not acknowledge the importance of this award and the office of Migration denied Sánchez permission to travel to the ceremony. In October of 2009, when she was awarded the Columbia University’s Maria Moore Cabot award, the Cuban government again denied her exit permit and she was unable to attend the ceremony.
In 2008, Time magazine classified Sánchez as one of the 100 most influential people on the planet, and adder her to their best 25 blogs of 2009. She won the highest award for a Weblog on Best of Blogs (BOBs), sponsored by Deutsche Welle International. Foreign Policy magazine selected her as one of the 10 most influential intellectuals of the Spanish-speaking world for 2009.
Contra-Castro discourse has traditionally been dense, long, and abstract. Generación Y on the other hand deals with the daily realities of living Cuba and emphasizes personal experience. Sánchez doesn’t like being branded a “Cyber-dissident” and insists that she doesn’t have a political affiliation. Sánchez’s sees her blog as a reflection of the everyday life of Cuban people, lived against a backdrop of a brutal, intolerant, and repressive regime. But, despite Sánchez’s emphasis on daily life, her blog and others like it are a key part of social protest. In February 2009, Sánchez and other bloggers made such a racket about the incarceration of rock singer Gorki Luis Aguila, known for his lyrics of protest, that he was released.
A new revolution
In her interview with the President Obama, she discussed the limitations to Internet access in Cuba and asked him if the American government would be willing to do anything about it. In addition, Obama assured her that the U.S. government has no intention of military action against Cuba, contradicting the Cuban government campaign of distrust against “The Empire.”
Sánchez and her husband believe that the only way to change the Cuban government is through citizen activism. They refuse to let up on their efforts, even in the presence of what they call political persecution.
According to the blogs of her friends, Sánchez later recognized one of her captors in a photograph. Although the details remain unclear, they claim Escobar challenged him to a verbal duel at the street corner where the kidnapping occurred, but the government planned some kind of festival for the same place and time. When they arrived, they encountered a crowd marching and chanting “This is Fidel’s street.” The crowd then assaulted Escobar. Police arrested some of the people taping the incident and confiscated their cameras. “This was the response to a request for dialogue: Physical violence, screaming and hate rallies,” declared Sánchez.
Critics claim Sánchez is an invention of Grupo Prisa, owners of the newspaper El País or that she is financed by Cuban dissidents and politicians in Washington, D.C. Some even accuse her of being an agent of Raúl Castro. She laughs at this.
Nonetheless, the fact that Sánchez cannot see her own blog, making her a “blind blogger,” is no laughing matter to her. Posting her commentaries is an ordeal. She must send them to friends and collaborators abroad so they can post them through a German portal called Desde Cuba (From Cuba), where her blog can be found along with six others.
She has been denied exit from the country, accused of being a traitor, and put under surveillance. However, she remains determined to make the blog world bigger. She travels around the country conducting workshops on blogging and has created an online platform called Voces Cubanas (Cuban Voices) that helps Cubans start their own blogs. The site hosts some 25 blogs currently.
In the meantime, Generación Y continues to grow. It has been translated into 16 languages by a team of volunteer translators and in September 2009 it received 14 million hits. International criticism of the Cuban government continues to grow as well, not only from Sánchez. During the last two weeks of November 2009, press around the world published the Human Rights Watch report and ran stories on the lack of basic staples for everyday living and the population’s collective discontent. A day after President Obama’s interview appeared on Sánchez’s blog the Cuban president ordered three days of intense military exercises to guard against U.S. invasion.
Something is happening on the island. Sánchez’s blog is like a tectonic fault rupturing under the establishment. Maybe Sánchez is not to far from the truth when she says that the “days of the Cuban government are numbered.” Maybe then, or even sooner, she will be able to respond to calls from Sampsonia Way. (Most of this article was glean from her and her collogues’ blogs.) Among other things, she could tell us about what her son Teo thinks about her fight, how she finances her blog – and what was written on the paper that she took from her kidnapper and put in her mouth.
Read Silvia’s bio.