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The Curious Case of Yoani Sanchez

by BENJAMIN WILLIS and MARIA ISABEL ALFONSO

Yoani Sanchez’ long-awaited arrival to the United States has been heralded as a victory for the opposition in Cuba and an example of how citizen journalists, armed with social media, can bring about democratic change in authoritarian societies. However, a closer look at the circumstances of her international journey and the difference of the receptions she has had so far in the United States and the rest of the world generates far more questions than it does answers.

Yoani’s meteoric rise as “award-wining” blogger has drawn as much suspicion as it has admiration. Her blog, Generación Y, has been championed by some members of the Cuban exile community and by certain opportunistic academic and journalistic circles because of her constant criticism of the Cuban government and its control over freedom of expression and assembly. Her confrontational discourse and blunt condemnation of Cuba’s official line is “red meat” for a great part of the exile community while her call for freedom of expression is an easy bandwagon for liberals to jump onto. However, not all of the historic exile community is in favor of her statements. The most recalcitrant faction has strenuously disapproved of the comments she has made from the beginning of her journey.

An historical understanding of Cuba’s reality in general, and its current and past relationship with the United States in particular, has led several intellectuals, journalists, and common citizens to question her motives and her resources. Hardly ever before has somebody with so little experience and output garnered so many international accolades so fast. The fact that so many of these awards come from countries that have actively pursued policies of usurping Cuban sovereignty only adds to the intrigue of Yoani’s legitimacy.

Salim Lamrani published “40 questions for Yoani Sanchez on her World Tour” in Opera Mundi on February 19th and many of them are exactly the type of queries that one must ask if one is to understand how Yoani could create so much of an international presence from a country that she repeatedly claims has such limited access to the internet. Here are some of the questions posed by Lamrani:

13. How can your blog accept Paypal, a payment system not available to any island resident because of economic sanctions that affect, among other things, e-commerce?

16. How are you able to register your domain through the U.S. company GoDaddy when this is formally forbidden under current economic sanctions?

17. Your blog is available in 18 languages including; English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, Russian, Slovenian, Polish, Chinese, Japanese, Lithuanian, Czech, Bulgarian, Dutch, Finnish, Korean and Greek. No other Web site in the world, not even the sites of important international agencies, such as the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, OECD or the European Union offers this degree of linguistic support. Not even the U.S. State Department or the CIA offers this degree of access to non-English speakers. Who finances the translations?

18. How is it possible that the site that hosts your blog offers bandwidth 60 times greater than the Internet access service Cuba offers to its users?

24. In 2011, you published 400 messages per month. The price of sending one SMS message from Cuba is $1.25. So, you spent $7,000 in one year of Twitter use. Who pays for this?

When asked about this list during her visit to Columbia University’s School of Journalism she joked that when she was in Brazil the list had grown to fifty questions and that she had already answered all of them. These questions though are not just for Yoani to brush off but are rhetorical questions that thinking people ought to ask when looking at her website and the production methods of “Team Yoani”.
Indeed, the first stop on her 80-day Phineas Fogg-like trip produced plenty of questions and Yoani’s answers belied the fact that maybe she wasn’t exactly “ready for primetime.”

Upon her arrival in Brazil, Yoani was greeted by the stark reality that many global citizens do not agree with her narrative. She was challenged by Brazilian journalists, students, and other citizens about her description of Cuban reality and her answers to three questions in particular caused her to backtrack almost immediately.

When asked about the U.S. embargo against Cuba, Yoani stated unequivocally that it was an interventionist policy and was a justification for the failings of the Cuban government. Most importantly she emphasized that this policy of economic strangulation was a “relic of the Cold War” and needed to be abandoned as soon as possible (“Ya!”). She also called upon the closing of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Not the detention center that has brought so much infamy to the United States government and has challenged our notion of due process, but the actual base which is a violation of Cuban sovereignty. Lastly, she called for the release of the Cuban operatives known as the Cuban Five arguing that the Cuban government has spent an unnecessary portion of its budget to campaign for their release.

When confronted by Miami Cubans who were incensed by such commentary Yoani began to backpedal by saying that her comments about the Cuban Five were “ironic” and that she believes that they are not innocent. This rationalization poses a problem for the legitimacy of her position.

For example, now that she has arrived in the United States her position towards the embargo and Guantanamo has been mitigated to a milquetoast generalization that there should be a “dialogue” about these issues. Why is she advocating for dialogue now instead of demanding for the termination of unilateral sanctions as she did in Brazil? Why does she not also decry the interventionist nature of USAID programs that are specifically aimed at “regime change” in Cuba? Why are these questions not being asked in New York, or more pointedly, why aren’t the institutions and academics not letting them be asked? The “guardians” at NYU and Columbia have shown a tendency to “cherry-pick” the questions directed towards Yoani. Why, in what is supposedly the freest nation on earth, is this happening? There have been protests and outbursts in her meetings but no direct challenge has been allowed that would put her in a position of explaining her vacillating views on such important topics.

Now, she has expounded on her desire to establish an independent online newspaper upon her return to the island. On the surface, this idea seems laudable and is far overdue to empower civil society in Cuba. But if one stops and ruminates upon what the basic necessities for setting up an organization like this entails then several more questions arise that must be added to the already long list for Yoani.

One person in New York held up a sign that read “Press isn’t free, It’s just cheap.” We are in an age where almost every “newspaper” on the planet is struggling to survive and where hegemonic corporate ownership of the airwaves, webpages, and what’s left of print media is almost complete. The few independent news sources remaining rely heavily on donations and subscriptions from their supporters and consumers. Also major funding comes from federal grants. Even Wikileaks and Counterpunch depend on donations. There is nothing wrong with this type of support but in the case of Cuba there simply isn’t the financial resources for this type of publication to operate with domestic funds. Most likely, she won’t receive any help from the Cuban government. So, in other words, the idea of an independent news source in Cuba, by default, has to be funded by foreign investment. Therefore, from the inception of such a project, “independent” is a questionable qualifier. Donations are a legitimate source of income for such an enterprise as long as they don’t come with strings attached.

Is Yoani so independently wealthy from the monetary awards that she is going around collecting on this trip that she can bankroll such an operation? The regulations of the U.S. embargo wouldn’t allow corporate control from the U.S. and would seriously deter a foreign corporation from backing the digital publication because of the extraterritorial ramifications of the Helms-Burton Act.

In an ironic twist of fate, will she have to depend on absolute communism for such a newspaper to succeed? Will her employees and associates work full time for free in order to bring such an ambitious project to fruition? Only in communist Cuba could that happen.

This past Tuesday Yoani was invited to Washington D.C. to meet with members of Congress and speak at the Cato Institute, where she again reiterated the need to end the embargo. But instead of making the obvious case that the embargo was a determent to the development of her people, she called it an “excuse” and stated at the Cato Institutue that: “I would love to see how the official propaganda apparatus would function without this big bad wolf. I doubt that it could.”

The reference to the “big bad wolf” may remind the reader of the fact that he was not the fictional wolf in the tale of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” but a dangerous menace who repeatedly came to destroy the homes and lives of the three little pigs. That is exactly what the embargo has done. It has destroyed the lives, homes, and infrastructure of the Cuban nation while mockingly espousing that it fosters “democracy” and is intended to “help” those it harms.

If this cynical reasoning is what it takes to dismantle the embargo, then more power to her. The embargo may be a crutch for the Cuban government to lean upon but it also has had very real effects on the island’s populace and Yoani can’t claim to be a spokesperson for her people if she can’t articulate that very obvious fact.

Despite her tepid argument for lifting the embargo, she was more than pleased to have met with the very members of the Cuban-American faction of the House that have done everything in their power to continue that policy, who were more than happy to fawn over her in return. Their visceral hate for the Cuban government is enough for them to overlook the fact that they disagree about the “effectiveness” of the embargo. Will Yoani demand that the United States lift the embargo and stop financing regime change operations that put ordinary Cuban citizens in peril for the remainder of her trip? Will she call on president Obama to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list while in the U.S.?

In April she is scheduled to be in Miami where a tribute will be paid to her work. She will be presented with a medal and will speak at the questionably named Torre de la Libertad (Liberty Tower). Will she exercise her freedom of speech and tell an audience that will include the most hardcore anti-Castro Cuban-Americans that the embargo is an interventionist policy and has to be lifted Ya!, that the Cuban Five be liberated, and that the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo be shut down and the land that it occupies given back to Cuba? Will she speak out against the historical oppression of diversity of thought within that same community towards notable figures such as the recently deceased Francisco Aruca, a victim of bomb threats and other heinous violence and character assassination? Will she denounce the violence that has been perpetrated by the radical factions within Miami’s exile community such as the bombing of Cubana flight 455 in 1976 and the other blatant acts of terrorism that have been linked to such vile characters as Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles? Will she ask Marco Rubio if he was serious when he compared Cuba to a zoo?

Will she plead for a Miami that allows pluralism and freedom of expression with the same conviction that she does in Cuba? Or, will she be a victim of her own self-censorship?

Benjamin Willis is a musician.

Maria Isabel Alfonso, PhD. is Associate Professor at St. Joseph’s College in New York. They are married and raising their nine-month old son in Queens on malanga, Los Van Van, and baseball. They are founding members of CAFE, Cuban Americans for Engagement. They can be reached at benjamin@cafeporcuba.com and isabel@cafeporcuba.com

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