Yoani Sanchez is a celebrated Cuban dissident blogger. (Yasuyo Shichiba/AFP/Getty…)
CARACAS, Venezuela — Yoani Sanchez, the celebrated Cuban dissident blogger, says she still has to steel her nerves when she prepares to write yet another vignette about the boredom, grim despair and hardship that mark life in Communist Cuba.
After all, dissidents have often wound up in jail. Yet over the past six years, Sanchez, 37, has regularly uploaded posts on her Generation Y blog that are then read by half a million people, most of them outside the island.
“There are moments when my knees shake, and I ask myself, ‘Why did I get into this?’ ” Sanchez said. “But there is no turning back now. I can’t stop, and they can’t erase what’s in the blog.”
Sanchez recounted her work last week across a crackling phone line from Prague, the second stop of her 80-day, multi-nation tour that began last month. The trip, which includes a visit to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York on Thursday followed by meetings with members of Congress in Washington next week, was made possible when Cuban President Raul Castro eliminated restrictions that barred ordinary Cubans from traveling.
“For five years I’ve tried on 20 occasions to travel, every time I received an invitation,” she said, describing the universities and book fairs that wanted her to attend, often to honor her with awards. “So this is a trip that I owe myself to be able to recoup a little bit of what was denied me by my government.”
The trip comes at a time of potential change for Cuba and the Castros, Raul and his brother, Fidel. Their longtime benefactor, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, died last week, and his successor faces serious economic problems. Chavez had provided 100,000 barrels of oil daily in a cut-rate deal to the Cubans, replacing the largesse the Castros lost when the Soviet Union collapsed.
All that has helped spike interest in what Sanchez has to say.
“I lament that the life of a nation depends so much on the death of one man,” she said. “I feel that the political absence of Hugo Chavez will, without a doubt, influence the national destiny.”
Protests in Brazil
Her Twitter followers increased by 35,000 after she arrived in Brazil, where pro-Castro protesters met her at an airport and then broke into a film screening she was attending, forcing the organizers to cancel.
“They were small but very noisy groups that shouted the same insults Cuban propaganda uses, that I’m a mercenary, a traitor, anti-fatherland, anti-Cuban, all the usual lexicon,” she said.
The Brazilian press later revealed that a Cuban official had met with pro-Castro groups and passed out dossiers on Sanchez.
In televised reports of the protests, Sanchez spoke with calm, a slightly bemused look on her face as demonstrators shouted her down. In the end, she went to Brasilia and addressed the country’s congress.
“I very much like the plurality of ideas and wish it was like this in my country,” Sanchez said later in the interview.
In Cuba, where those deemed political threats are tracked by the intelligence service, Sanchez had to be discreet when she started blogging in 2007. She would sneak into hotels, head to the business center and fire off vignettes to friends on the outside who would then post them on her site.
These days, her blog gets 10 million page views a month, with a post sometimes generating up to 5,000 comments, said Ted Henken, a professor of Latin American studies at New York’s Baruch College who is helping Sanchez organize the U.S. leg of her tour. She also has 440,000 followers on Twitter.
“Her posts are not political harangues,” Henken said. “They are vignettes, the day-in-the-life struggle that everyday people can relate to.”
Sanchez said she simply felt the need to write about “a country that wasn’t anything like the one they had promised.” So she wanders around the nooks of Havana, analyzes the state’s opaque statements, and keeps track of the latest trends.
Of late, she has written of how so few Cubans seem to care, or even know, that the “octogenarians who govern” have chosen a younger apparatchik, Miguel Diaz-Canel, to succeed Raul Castro in five years.
A Cuban film caught her fancy in another post, specifically a character who smoked a cigar because tourists wanted to photograph him. She also wrote of addicts who “fall asleep in front of the same television where Raul Castro assures us that in Cuba there are no drugs.”
Those kinds of observations have led to several detentions. But she has not been jailed for lengthy stretches, perhaps because Cuba has of late appeared to be avoiding the bad publicity of jailing dissidents long-term. Her blog was also blocked in Cuba for three years, with the Cuban government accusing her of being a paid CIA agent.
Frank Calzon, who directs the Center for a Free Cuba, said Sanchez obsesses the regime because she writes in a vivid, engaging style and because she has mastered technology that dictators fear.
“After 50 years of controlling what Cubans read and what they wrote and even whom they could hate, here’s a woman speaking her own mind,” Calzon said.
Sanchez has also been a critic of Washington’s half-century economic embargo.
She notes with a laugh how loopholes in the law mean Cubans eat chicken, corn and other products imported from the United States. But she says the embargo has given the Castros a potent propaganda tool.
“It’s become the best way to explain problems in Cuba, that when there are no potatoes, it’s the embargo,” she said.
Still, even with U.S. policy little changed since the Cold War, Sanchez said she believes change will come to Cuba — not because of economic changes instituted by Raul Castro but because of an increasingly restless people.
“There is something irreversible happening,” she said. “And that is the need people have to express themselves.”