Yoani: A Dissident and a Patriot

Monday, September 8, 2014
By Maria Hinojosa in Global Post:

Cuba's Yoani Sanchez: A dissident and a patriot

For a woman who risks assault, incarceration or death because of what she says and writes, Yoani Sanchez comes off as entirely serene and at peace with herself. And this soft-spoken 39-year-old, a wife and mother of just over five feet tall, is one of the most famous people taking on one of the most famous revolutions of our time: the Cuban Revolution.

Yoani has taken on the Cuban government not by protesting on the streets of Havana, which surely would land her in jail, but by writing about her daily life — a sort of quiet protest — and publishing what was once completely unthinkable: a Cuban blog.

This kind of work was considered unthinkable because while the Cuban revolution was supposed to stand for education, for the "new" man and the "new" woman, a revolution that was once an inspiration for intellectuals, there is barely any access to the internet and all of the possible education that comes with it. As a result, Yoani's online presence has gotten her into trouble with the government before.

Yoani is a writer. But like most Cubans she is also a fixer — a fixer of a broken can opener, of a shoe with a hole or a refrigerator, fan, or engine that has broken and for which no spare parts are accessible. Yoani learned how to build things as a kid and, as a teenager, she once built her own computer in her back yard.

And with that Yoani decided to speak her truth.

Thousands follow her on Twitter even though, for her, Twitter is a one-way street. She posts by sending text messages to friends off the island. But she can never read what people write back and can never respond.

Her blog, Generacion Y, is read by thousands and in the last few months she launched a digital newspaper of sorts. The Cuban government immediately hacked the site and posted a statement saying that Yoani is a traitor to the Caribbean island and its people.

"Labeling is the core of Castro's Cuba," said Yoani. "It is the official way of dividing the country. You label some people with glorious epithets and others with dismissive ones. Then the government accuses you of being unpatriotic and they try to take away your own right to nationalism and try to push you into exile."

It would be a normal thing by now for Yoani to have picked up and left the country. She's had lots of chances to do so.

But that she hasn’t is exactly the thing that makes her the new face of resistance. She has no plans on ever leaving Cuba. The government may call her a traitor, but Yoani is proving her own patriotism by not walking away.

For many around the world, the Cuban revolution, and even Fidel Castro, were once held in high esteem. And many still hang on to the official line of the benefits of the revolution — free education, free healthcare, no racism, job security and socialist economic justice.

Yoani calls these the exported myths. On the ground and through her blog, though, many people come to realize what a challenge it is even to eat. And teachers, once the most respected professionals in Cuba, are paid between $20 and $30 a month. Many have left the field for the more lucrative job of a jinetera, a jockey — the slang term for prostitutes who ride something other than a horse.

Yoani remembers growing up with the slogans and verbal promises of the revolution. As an adult, the central question she began to ask herself was where the Cuba she was promised had gone.

"No one would give me a microphone or a newspaper column or a minute on TV to ask that question," she said.

So with her existential revolutionary angst, her love of writing and her love of "technology and cables, screens, the feel and texture of the keyboard, I realized that I could fuse the two passions of my life."

Technology has become her life-saver.

While I work hard to purposefully disconnect from the internet and try, mostly unsuccessfully, to have my teen kids do the same, technology is the thing that Yoani depends on to literally stay alive.

She may be the most famous Cuban who is unknown to the majority of Cubans on the island (because they don't have internet or computers), but the fact that Yoani has thousands of followers around the world means she is almost untouchable. If she is harassed or threatened she can let it be known. It could happen, but surely if the Cuban government jailed her, it would quickly become an international scandal.

Technology is her lifeline and the thing the younger generations of Cubans see as their future, regardless of what the government says. In fact, Young people like her 19-year-old son have gotten to a point where they just don't care what the government says or does anymore. Yoani said that one day scientists will come to study how it is that a generation of young Cubans have developed the mental ability to ignore all official propaganda.

"They have developed selective hearing,” she said, somewhat in awe. “Their focus is on the outside and being a part of the greater world that is connecting through technology."

Their focus is on a place where borders and visas and permits don't preclude conversation.

"They have managed to leave behind a past, the Castro past, that my generation is still dragging along," she added.

Yoani Sanchez has been called a spy for the Americans and she has been called a spy for the Cubans too, and both or one or none of that might be true. It doesn't take away from the fact that Yoani is a new kind of Cuban who isn't afraid to say anything because she has spies of her own, all over the world, that are watching her and waiting to Tweet the second this tiny woman from Havana is taken on by the big revolutionary government.

And while Fidel might not like it, he is no match against the simple wires, screens and keyboards that connect Yoani to the rest of the world, no matter what he says or does.

This is your "new" woman, Fidel. Unstoppable. Just like you once were.