In this Index on Censorship magazine interview from 2011, the celebrated Cuban blogger talks to Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson
The Cuban authorities recently accused Yoani Sánchez and her Generación Y blog of being part of a concerted “cyberwar” against the government, now led by Raúl Castro. Yoani’s blog is often blocked so that no one inside Cuba can read her work, but in the United States, Spain and the rest of Europe, many thousands follow her accounts of daily life. Yoani Sánchez does not write on overtly political topics, but her descriptions of the hassles and absurdities of life on the Caribbean island today paint an accurate picture that often clashes with the official version. According to Time magazine, she was one of the world’s “100 most influential people” in 2008, together with Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama and Rupert Murdoch, but she insists she is simply a citizen who wishes to exercise the rights all Cubans should be free to enjoy.
Yoani lives with her husband, son and a large, friendly black-and-white dog. They occupy a 19th-floor apartment of a drab, weather-stained 1960s Soviet-style tower block behind several ministry buildings in the west of Havana. However, it is almost luxurious by the standards of the capital: it is relatively large and airy, boasts two bedrooms, and its tiny internal courtyard is crammed with tropical greenery. The living-room walls are lined with books. Many of the volumes are brought into the country by individuals, to be loaned out as part of the increasingly prevalent system of “private libraries”, a means of breaking the state’s monopoly on publishing and distribution.
Yoani is now 35 years old, and her parents were part of the generation of the 1960s, raised in the first decade following “the Triumph of the Revolution”. They shared the faith that Che Guevara’s “New Man” would combine with the state communism adopted by Fidel Castro and his regime to create a better world. Yoani recalls how they laboured long hours for scant pay, over and beyond their jobs. “They sacrificed their lives to build a socialist heaven for their children,” she recalls.
By the time the Russians pulled out in the 1990s and the islanders were facing up to the stringencies of what Fidel Castro termed “a special period in times of peace” — one that translated into further shortages, along with still less freedom of speech and movement — Yoani’s parents finally lost faith in this promised paradise. “They changed overnight. My father stopped being a Communist Party militant. My mother was no longer a leader in the communist youth movement. They became completely disillusioned, and that was the world I grew up in.”
This atmosphere led Yoani to look abroad for opportunities. Unlike many, however, she did not aim for Miami and life as a Cuban exile. Instead, she taught in Europe, spending two years in Switzerland, where she studied computer science and realised how powerful the new technologies could be.
On her return to Cuba in 2004, she put her mastery of the medium to practical use. She opened a web portal and with others began publishing online blogs. Since only 5 per cent of Cubans, almost exclusively officially sanctioned state employees, are currently allowed direct internet access, Yoani started using the large tourist hotels where business centres are intended for the use of resident foreign tourists.
Cuba has no internet cafes and the libraries do not offer online access. A small number of “dissident” Cuban writers rely on weekly access of a few hours a week, granted via foreign embassies. Yoani is determined that if she is not permitted access to the internet in her living-room, she should at least be able to be free to walk into the only public centres available. She regards it as her right, as a Cuban: “I prefer visiting hotels and confronting the system rather than just bypassing it by using the embassies. Anyone who does this automatically enters the system via servers in the countries of origin, rather than over a Cuban server.” When she was denied access on one occasion, she filmed the event on her phone and posted it online, immediately attracting 50,000 hits.
It was after Yoani took the decision in 2007 to put her name to her blogs that trouble with the regime began. As often happens with “dissidents” in Cuba, she has been accused of being a CIA agent, and more recently of being part of a foreign-instigated “cyberwar” against the regime. This has had predictable repercussions on her personal life: “I don’t consider myself paranoid, but people have been encouraged to ostracise me,” she says with a shrug. She says she can live with the constant surveillance of the building where she lives, but is worried about what might happen to her son. A star school pupil, he could be subjected to exclusion from tertiary education on spurious (non-academic) grounds. This would be another example of the way in which parents are punished through their children, by the unexplained refusal of university admission.
Occasionally the harassment has been more brutally direct. Yoani was physically assaulted in November 2009 and February 2010, when she was going to a meeting of the “damas de blanco” — the women in white — who protested silently each week about the notorious detention of 75 journalists, writers and human rights activists arrested during the “Black Spring” of 2003. She paused to show us how she was held down on the floor of a taxi with her knee pressed against her sternum, causing maximum pain with least visible effect. She also showed us how this has left her unable to turn her head from side to side, the apparent consequence of pressure on her cervical vertebrae. “They prefer methods that cause lasting pain but don’t produce an immediate show of blood.” She pointed out how counterproductive these violent acts of aggression can be: “They had the opposite effect to that intended — there was a surge in support for us, and the attacks only made me more determined.”
Apart from instances of intimidation, the main restriction Yoani currently faces is that of not being able to travel abroad. In 2009, she was refused permission to leave the country in order to collect the prestigious Moors Cabot award for freedom of speech from Columbia University in New York. More recently, she has been denied a visa to travel to collect prizes in Germany and Spain for her work. “They took my passport, and instead of giving me a visa, simply failed to return it. They do not need to refuse to [grant me a visa], they just do not give [my passport] back. So I cannot leave to go anywhere outside the island,” she adds.
Beyond what affects her personally, what most incenses Yoani is the amount of doublespeak and hypocrisy that the Cuban authorities indulge in. Showing us her ration card, she remarks that, for example, each Cuban is allocated six kilos of sugar per month. This is not because it grows in such abundance on the island (Cuba in fact now has to import from Brazil what for so long used to be its main crop) but because of the quantity of calories it contains. In this way the country avoids appearing poverty-stricken in terms of global statistics. Above all, the revolution would face ultimate shame and failure if Cuba were shown as a country where malnutrition affected the population.
Yoani relates the surge in street crime to the current economic crisis. “Take the crime wave there has been here,” she continues. “It hardly receives a mention, even in the [state-owned] media. The government’s attitude is: if you don’t talk about something, then it doesn’t exist. The commonest crimes, like robberies and muggings, are rarely recorded. The police are complicit in this, for fear it could reflect badly on them; all state employees are constantly looking over their shoulder. We even hear, for example, about hospitals equipped with the latest technology, but not that they are lacking such basic materials as sheets or thermometers.”
Yoani is well aware that such criticisms are bound to make life harder for her in Cuba. But she insists that she is doing nothing wrong or “unpatriotic” and that visibility and being completely open about what she is doing are her best defence. “A blog is a way of talking to yourself. At the same time, you have to be completely transparent and honest with yourself to be able to explain to anyone who was not born in Cuba what this society is like.”
There are now at least a hundred “alternative bloggers” in Cuba, despite the lack of official access to the internet. It is estimated that her own Generación Y blogs are translated into 21 languages, but she has also moved on to the next stage. “I’m really proud that I can reach 102,000 people on Twitter, whereas Fidel only has 93,000 followers. That’s because his tweet is really boring.” Bringing an apparently new word into the Cuban vocabulary, she adds: “But Raúl no es twittero.”
She is confident that the Castro regime cannot keep the lid on the free circulation of information on the island: “The information monopoly is being broken thanks to satellite phones, the internet, all the new technological developments. More people are becoming aware of them every day, it’s something you can’t prevent.”
Yoani herself helps promote this spread of the use of new technologies by running courses on using the internet and Twitter, and on how to create new blogs and websites. She insists again that she has every right to do so, and that this is in no sense a “war” on the Cuban government. The library she runs from home is to loosen the state’s stranglehold on the publishing and circulation of books. “I know many people have sent me hundreds of them, but not one has ever arrived,” she tells us.
Like many dissidents — the last of the Black Spring 75 has only just gone into involuntary exile — she is fiercely Cuban, and prefers to be able to live in her home country. Despite the risks to which she is now exposed, she insists she has no regrets: “I am living the life I have chosen to live.”
We all need to leave the apartment at the same time, to go our separate ways. We agree to split up as we depart, in order to avoid attracting the attention of anyone who might be watching outside. However, this is Cuba and we have to wait ten minutes for the lift to arrive. We end up sharing it for the long drop down to street level. We emerge at the same time, studiously avoiding each other, and without bidding goodbye. Yoani puts on her sunglasses before we go out into the sunlight.
Amanda Hopkinson is visiting professor of literary translation at both Manchester University and City University, London. She has published many books on Latin American culture and translated more from the Spanish, Portuguese and French
Nick Caistor is a freelance writer. He teaches journalism at UAE. Reaktion Books will publish his book Fidel Castro: a critical life next year