From Cuba With Courage
She is an outstanding writer, a great political analyst, a popular blogger and an award-winning journalist. But those are not the best adjectives to describe Yoani Sanchez.
Courage is what makes her different.
After all, writing, analyzing politics, blogging and practicing journalism are much more difficult where she does it. Freedom of expression is a rare commodity in Havana.
Yet Sanchez, 34, insists on speaking her mind — apparently protected by her rapidly growing international notoriety — in a country where such daring people usually are held in prison.
Through her popular "Generación Y" blog, Sanchez keeps opening a small window for the world to see the harsh reality of daily life under a communist dictatorship.
Despite having very limited access to new technology and to cyberspace, many young Cubans are finding ways to communicate with the outside world — in ways that the totalitarian regime cannot totally suppress. Sanchez is one of a growing number of young Cubans who, using servers in other countries, have created blogs and Internet news sites to present the side of Cuba that is not covered by the government-controlled news media. Ironically, their publications circulate much more freely outside Cuba than they do on the island.
Yet these free voices from Havana have gained many followers all over the world. In barely two years, "Generación Y" has grown to having millions of page views per month. Her supporters translate and post her blogs in some 15 languages, and last year, Time magazine named her one of the world's 100 most influential people.
This is obviously recognition of not only her amazing courage but also the level of difficulty in practicing journalism in Cuba — of her tireless toil to send out her message from a country where the government restricts access to the Internet.
Mind you, Sanchez struggles to post her blog by buying a few minutes of access on one of the few online computers available to Cubans in Havana and by evading government efforts to block her uploads and censor her writings. And in doing so, she has become a persona non grata in her own country.
Yet when Sanchez wins awards for her hazardous work, she is not allowed to leave Cuba to receive them. Because she speaks so bluntly in spite of many impediments in Cuba, the government obviously fears what she would say if she were abroad and able to speak freely.
On four different occasions, Sanchez has been denied requests to travel outside the "island prison" she describes in her blog. It happened last year, when she was invited to go to Madrid to receive a prize for digital journalism. And it happened again last week, when she was denied permission to travel to New York to receive a prestigious Maria Moors Cabot citation at Columbia University for practicing journalism that promotes inter-American understanding.
"I am a little delusional" Sanchez wrote on her blog later.
But when Sanchez realized she wasn't going anywhere, she courageously posted a video, now on YouTube, showing exactly what happened Oct. 12, when she was denied permission to travel to New York at the Cuban government's immigration office in Havana.
"I need to know if you have lifted the ban on my traveling that has been in effect for a year," Sanchez told a clerk surrounded by uniformed officers.
But the clerk, like a programmed robot, kept repeating the same phrase: "You are still not authorized to travel."
And with each vague response to Sanchez's questions, the conversation kept getting more intense.
"You know this is a violation of my constitutional rights," Sanchez told the clerk. "You people are violating my rights as a citizen, the ability to travel, to leave and enter my country. It is very serious. That a military institution denies a fundamental right of a civilian citizen, it is like the right to an education, to food."
In this video, you see something rarely seen in the past 50 years: a fearless Cuban confronting government officials with words most Cubans wish they had the courage to say.
"You are making a travesty of life," Sanchez told them. "This institution that you represent, this permission to leave, someday this is going to end. My grandchildren are not going to live under these conditions. When I tell them the story of how the institutions of my country violated my rights, my right to travel, they're not going to believe me. What will you tell your children? That you dedicated yourself to violating the rights of Cubans? Is that what you'll say?"
The video is more powerful than any acceptance speech Sanchez could have delivered in New York. Millions of people will watch it on the Internet.
Yet Sanchez wasn't about to miss an opportunity to speak about freedom of expression at a prestigious American university. And so she posted another video message, taped in a Havana park and viewed at the awards ceremony. "We Cubans are like small children who need Father's permission to leave the house," she said. "And in the case of the little girl named Yoani Sanchez, the personal and social price I've paid for posting my views of the world and of my reality has condemned me to immobility."
Nevertheless, although she can't leave Cuba, Sanchez said the recognition she has received from the award has served as "a protective shield against the repression and, above all, state control that any person who thinks differently can suffer in Cuba."
She said she dreams of the day when Cuban bloggers no longer are punished "simply because they don't follow the party line or fall within the boundaries of an ideology."
In one of her most recent blog entries, Sanchez describes Twitter as a bird "who raises me up with his feet," and she notes that even though uniformed officers affirm that she cannot leave Cuba, technology allows her to travel like never before. "I am already thousands of kilometers from here," Sanchez wrote, "in this virtual world that they cannot understand nor fence in."
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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