Yoani Sánchez, the daring and endangered Cuban blogger, told a Chicago Council audience Thursday evening how hard it is to be a free citizen in a country where true citizenship is forbidden.
“We are a country of whispers,” she said. “Nobody speaks out loud.”
Sánchez, the Council’s 2014 Gus Hart Fellow, is a rarity in Castro Cuba, an independent journalist who uses technology, imagination, a global network, and courage to get her online newspaper, blog, and tweets to hundreds of thousands of followers around the world and, more important, inside Cuba.
Sánchez swung between a dream and despair in describing a Cuba dominated by fear and scarcity, under a government that experiments with timid reforms while suppressing dissent and blocking the rise of any true new leaders.
Could she be a leader of a post-Castro Cuba? “I’d rather be a citizen,” she said, “because it’s forbidden in my country.”
Sánchez, 39, said she didn’t want to talk about a revolution, because the Castro revolution debased that word in Cuba.
“The revolution is dead,” she said. “It was six feet under when I was born.”
And she was wary of discussing dreams, because the same revolution promised “a dream, a utopia. Equality for everyone. Opportunity. No money. Everybody will have everything.
“For that Cuba,” she said, “my parents gave up their youth. But it never came.
“Where is the Cuba that we were promised? My mother was born under Castro. I was born under Castro. My 19-year-old son was born under Castro. That’s three generations of Cubans who have been deceived.”
Sánchez left Cuba to study in Switzerland, then chose to come back. Her transformation into a dissident blogger came step by step.
“You don’t lose your fear all of a sudden,” she said. “One day, I was afraid of being afraid.” She talked about a wave of repression in 2003, the so-called Cuban Black Spring, when a relative was arrested. She told her son, then eight years old, that his uncle was in jail “because he was a courageous man.”
“So Teo said, ‘So you’re cowards?’ If you have a son like this, you can’t keep silent.”
After Switzerland, she felt “this prevailing feeling of asphyxiation. I said I was going to take off the mask.”
Sánchez said that she, like all Cubans, knows technology, out of the necessity of constant repairs to aging household appliances. In 1994, she had already built a computer, using parts found on the black market.
In 2007, she created her blog, Generación Y, which was an “exorcism…an expelling of the demons of silence.” To write it, she had to sneak in disguise into hotels reserved for foreign tourists, to use computers with links to the outside world.
At one point, the government blocked her site, “which was a horrible decision. Nothing is as attractive as that which has been prohibited.” All Cubans under 45 know how to get around censorship, she said, and she built a following.
Sánchez is a connoisseur of repression.
“Fidel put people in jail for long times,” she said. “Raúl works in the shadows. People pull you by force into a car and beat you up, and then let you go.
“Is this worse? No, it’s just repression.”
Once she was freed when a friend who had also been arrested managed to tweet about the arrest.
“Technology has protected me,” Sánchez said. “That’s why I’m a great fan of technology.”
Sánchez described a demoralized, even a criminalized Cuba.
“They wanted to make a new man out of us,” she said. “What happened? That man now has to choose to be decent and honest, or to feed his family. You have to steal to survive. You end up becoming a thief. The new man is a heartless man, and a heartless man can create a very brutal regime.”
This despair echoed when she was asked to name the three barriers to an overthrow of the regime.
First, she said, is “fear that’s been inculcated in us since we were little.”
Second is the “absence of an economic structure. A civic economy needs an economy. You need people to stop standing four hours in line for bread.”
The third is the “exodus” over the years of many of the best young people and the best minds.
Raúl Castro has made some market reforms, such as permission for private restaurants. Sánchez wasn’t impressed.
“They’re going in the right direction,” she said. “The problem is not the direction. It’s the depth and the speed. They create a feeling of economic relaxation. People can buy a slice of pizza.
“But from a social development standpoint, it’s not enough.”
Sánchez said tourists to Cuba should bring computer parts, especially flash drives, to help spread information.
“One day, when Cuba changes, we will have to build a monument to flash memory,” she said.
Richard C. Longworth is a senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Read more of his program summaries and recent publications or follow his blog.