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Cuban blogger the voice of youth-oriented counterculture

CUBA | THE INTERNET
Cuban blogger the voice of youth-oriented counterculture
Blogger Yoani Sánchez is part of a growing youth-oriented Cuban
counterculture tired of keeping quiet — despite the obstacles.
BY LYDIA MARTIN
lmartin@MiamiHerald.com

Yoani Sánchez, the blogger who has gained an international following
detailing the absurdities of daily life in Cuba, is on the phone from
her 14th-floor apartment in Havana, where the elevators rarely work. She
speaks plainly, boldly, with none of the hemming and hawing common among
folks on the island who fear their phones are tapped.

Sánchez is certain hers is. She is constantly followed, too. None of
this stops her from finding ways, despite government attempts to block
her, of continuing to post to Generación Y, the blog she launched in
April 2007 and for which she has won several awards. Time magazine named
her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2008.

“Of course I'm afraid. I'm not especially valiant. Maybe it's the panic
itself that keeps me moving forward. I fear for my 14-year-old son,
though so far the government has left him alone,'' says Sánchez, 33, in
her unflappable manner.

TOUGH FIGURE

With her skinny frame and dark hair, she looks a tad like Olive Oyl. But
that's where the comparison to Popeye's weak-kneed girlfriend ends.
Sánchez is a much tougher figure, a tech-savvy representative of a
growing youth-oriented Cuban counterculture who tells it like it is —
about having to feed her family rice with bouillon cubes when there is
nothing else, about the surging number of women on the island who deny
their realities by popping black-market Valium, about the cops who are
assigned to tail her.

From her blog — desdecuba.com/generationy/ — translated into more
than a dozen languages, she once asked those “selfless companions who
monitor the entrance to my building'' to give her neighbors a break.
Their presence inhibited illegal activity in the building, which meant
residents could not get anyone to sell them anything on the black market.

“I feel I'm to blame for the commercial strangulation in which the
other 143 apartments are plunged, and I have to do something to relieve
them,'' Sánchez wrote. “So, I ask them . . . look the other way when it
comes to food.''

“After speaking your mind, you can't one fine day return to silence,''
Sánchez says.

At the end of July, she learned that she is a recipient of Columbia
University's Maria Moors Cabot Prize, which recognizes outstanding
reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean. But she expects that the
Cuban government won't allow her to travel to New York for the Oct. 14
awards ceremony. Saturday, she wrote that there are 66 entries in A
Virtual Island, a Cuba blog contest she helped organize.

Sánchez has written about her absurd search for a lemon after waking up
with a sore throat. And she has spoken directly to “the boys of the
Cybernetics Response Brigade'' after her blog exceeded four million hits
last March:

“To the boys who are assigned to paste porno ads, insults and all kinds
of silliness, I am very sorry if the statistics eventually cause you to
be reprimanded or to lose your jobs.''

“She has a very charming way of telling her story,'' says the
Chicago-based Cuban-American novelist Achy Obejas.

Obejas regularly travels to the island where, she says, more and more
people are reading Sánchez's blog, often passed around on flash drives
— gadgets that have become a hot commodity in a country in which only a
tiny percentage of the population has access to the Internet.

“The breakthrough of her blog is that she doesn't lecture,'' Obejas
says. “And that she immediately understood the need for brevity. What
Cuban on earth understands brevity? She also sounds utterly sane.''

Sánchez may be the best-known blogger in Cuba, but she is part of a
multiplying roster of critics who have joined what she calls “the
virtual raft.' In fact, she has inspired several to turn to Web-based
journalism and activism and offers training on how to keep a blog and
circumvent the Cuban laws that keep most of the populace unplugged.

Although Raúl Castro decriminalized ownership of computers, cellphones
and other technological gadgets in 2008, only professionals, academics
and officials are allowed to surf the Web, and they are monitored. Some
islanders are hooked up through black-market accounts, but the general
population is allowed only to send and receive e-mails from public spots.

Sánchez and other bloggers go to cyber cafes and hotel access points
meant mostly for tourists, where an hour of connectivity costs about $8,
out of reach for the average Cuban with a monthly salary of $15 to $20.
(Sanchez and her husband, independent journalist Reinaldo Escobar, make
ends meet by working as private tour guides and translators).

But people who may have been too fearful to express dissatisfaction in
the past now seem more emboldened as a result of the Internet, which
helped bring Cuba out of its 50-year information lockdown.

`CYCLE OF SILENCE'

“It isn't just the bloggers,'' Sánchez says. “Little by little, the
cycle of silence is coming to an end. You see this at the bus stop, in
the line for eggs. It isn't that there is more tolerance, but that the
people are being more daring.''

There are growing numbers of dissidents and opposition groups on the
island, and groups in the United States that advocate for democracy in
Cuba are turning to technology to help in the fight.

Through Maximum Non-Violent Action, which aims to consolidate opposition
efforts across Cuba, Miami exile Magdelivia Hidalgo is helping organize
an effort to get to the island materials that teach about civil
disobedience, using Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as models.

“It's the young people who are taking the lead in Cuba right now,''
Hidalgo says. “They know how to use a computer, how to text one
another. Our efforts should be focused on getting as much technology to
the island as possible.''

Raíces de Esperanza (Roots of Hope), a U.S. network of young people who
aim to help empower the younger generation in Cuba, recently kicked off
a campaign to collect cellphones to send to the island.

“Cubans have already created their own slang and acronyms for texting.
We believe that bolstering their connectivity is good for everyone,''
says Raíces chair Felice Gorordo, 26, of Miami. “What they do with the
phones is their prerogative. But we want young people speaking to one
another. Ultimately, they should be the authors of their own futures.''

`DRESS REHEARSAL'

Says New Jersey writer Alexis Romay, whose Belascoaín y Neptuno blog
links to several on the island, including Sánchez's: “People inside the
island and outside are finally communicating. It's like a virtual dress
rehearsal for when this can happen in a physical place. Through blogs
and e-mails, we get to establish a civil debate.''

Sánchez, who has a bigger readership overseas than at home, has become a
sort of hero to a young generation of Cuban Americans who find in her a
symbol for common ground. Like many younger exiles, who tend to be more
moderate than their parents, Sánchez supports the Juanes concert
scheduled for Havana's Plaza de la Revolución on Se
pt. 20.

Some Miami exiles have criticized the Colombian pop star for agreeing to
share the stage with Silvio Rodríguez and Los Van Van, two of the
island's top government-backed acts, saying that Juanes' concert will
send a message that he supports the Castro government.

Sánchez challenges Juanes to play Havana, but see the bigger picture.
“He will raise his voice before a people who have been divided,
classified according to a political color and compelled to confront any
who think differently,'' she recently posted. “We need his voice, but
only if he comes to sing without forgetting any Cuban, without rejecting
any difference.''

“She's a rock star. The coolest thing about her is that she is so
fearless,'' says New York playwright Carmen Pelaez. “Fear is what
drives people in Miami to burn Juanes CDs. Let him perform, and let's
see what he has to say. And like Yoani, let's all get over our fear. If
we do, we'll be able to pull back the curtain and find that there's
nothing but a cadaver at the control panel.''

Sánchez, whose blog is named after children of the 1970s and '80s whose
parents got caught in the trend of bestowing on their babies
Russian-sounding names that start with the letter Y (Yamile, Yulieski,
Yolexis, Yanisleidi, Yoandri, Yusimi, Yama), demurs when she is called a
leader of Cuba's hipsters.

“I am part of the counterculture, and the counterculture is growing,
but it is very diverse. Maybe one thing we all have in common is that we
don't wear Che T-shirts, like foreign kids who consider themselves
counterculture do,'' she says. “In Cuba, Che represents the government.
In Cuba, only tourists and members of the Young Communist League wear
Che shirts.''

She explains her generation: “We came up after the disbanding of the
Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. We could never believe
that the system would create a utopian Cuba, because the experiment had
already more than failed. As a philologist, I don't call myself a
dissident, because a dissident has to believe in something before one
day opposing it. I never believed in the doctrine.''

For all of her criticism of the Cuban government, and even though
officials put up firewalls so she can't access her blog from anywhere on
the island (she blogs blind, e-mailing, texting or calling in posts to
friends in Germany who manage the blog and e-mail her the reader
comments), some folks on and off the island believe Sánchez must be a
double agent.

“Nobody has that kind of access to the Internet in Cuba,'' says Adyeren
Cordoba, who lives in Kendall and runs a window-installation business
with her husband. “Anybody who has lived in Cuba knows that in the end,
everything is a lie.''

“I understand the government has bred a lot of paranoia,'' says
Sánchez, who believes the only reason she is not in prison is because of
the international exposure her blog gives her.

“But a long time ago I decided to stop asking myself if so-and-so was
with Seguridad or with the CIA. And I'm patient, but what I would like
is to someday live in a place where no one ever has to wonder if
somebody is from Seguridad or the CIA.''

“This thing of continuing to accuse people of being spies and agents
can't play anymore,'' says Andy Gomez, assistant provost and senior
fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the
University of Miami. “Rather than build bridges, it destroys whatever
chance there is for reconciliation. ''

Sánchez says she will go through the motions of requesting permission to
travel to New York to pick up her special citation, the first time the
Cabot recognizes a blogger. But she's pretty certain the government will
say no, as it did when she asked permission to travel to Spain in 2008
to receive the country's prestigious Ortega y Gasset prize.

STAYING PUT

She says she wouldn't defect. “And I think that's the main reason the
government won't let me travel,'' she says.

“They know that I wouldn't just stay away but would come back with more
information, more contacts, more technology. Frankly, I don't believe
the answer is a life outside of Cuba, but a life in another Cuba.''

Cuban blogger the voice of youth-oriented counterculture – 5-Minute
Herald – MiamiHerald.com (23 August 2009)
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/5min/v-fullstory/story/1198467.html

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