Interview with Yoani Sanchez and Reinaldo Escobar: A Limit to All the Hatreds
Interview: Ernesto Morales
Cuban journalist based in Bayamo
Photos: Claudio Fuentes Madan
The owner of the only radio station in a small town decides, one day, to launch a campaign against his neighbor. We don’t know what motivates his enmity, but it’s not important. What does matter is that this man holds significant power, and that his enemy is an ordinary man. As a part of his plan, he decides to corrupt the image of his neighbor. He thinks: I will say that he is pervert. That he is a pedophile. From now on, he will use the programs with the largest audience to accuse his detested neighbor of sexually corrupting the children of the community. He will find friends and supporters (which every man has, particularly powerful men), and put them in front of the microphone: “Yes, that man is a pervert, he is a villain.” Every day. Without rest. The owner of the station will enjoy thinking up new arguments to sustain the accusation about his neighbor’s perversions. He will not be able to respond publicly to the lies, he has no way to do so. Even worse, he will have no way to prove he is NOT a pedophile, that he has never committed such a grotesque crime. Few things are as difficult to prove as innocence.
You listen to the radio from time to time, and you know what they say about that man, who is also your neighbor. Truly, that it’s not that important to you. When you run into him on the street he greets you kindly and has always seems like a decent man. But, if one afternoon your small son stays playing at the nearby park longer than usual, you run to look for him with a strange nervousness. A nervousness that would not have existed, certainly, if you hadn’t noticed that the neighbor, the one they were always talking about on the radio, was reading the newspaper on one of the benches in that same park.
The voice on the other end of the phone is exceedingly cordial. Reinaldo Escobar, a man with whom I’ve never traded a single word, listens to my request with a presence of mind that destroys any coolness between strangers.
“If it’s not too difficult,” Reinaldo says, “Tomorrow morning at 9:00 we’re having another Blogger Academy meeting here in our apartment. You can show up any time after that and arrange your interview with Yoani, or if at any moment there’s an opportunity, you can do it right then and there.” He followed with a detailed explanation for a non-Havanan about how to find Yoani Sanchez’s apartment. I remember with affection the first part of his explanation: “Go to the Plaza of the Revolution and from there follow the street in the direction of where Che is looking off into the distance.”
I remember having noticed the remarkable and fine irony: Yoani Sanchez and Reinaldo Escobar, two well-known figures of the anti-government reaction to the Cuban regime, live in an apartment on the fourteenth floor of a Yugoslavian-style building that overlooks the back of the Plaza of the Revolution, the Holy Temple of the Cuban government.
After 10:00 on the following morning I knocked on the door where a miniature Cuban flag, with the inscription “Internet for All” has been hung by way of welcome.
Yoani herself opened it. Her face graceful, smiling. Before me, about thirty people were sitting on plastic chairs looking at a wall where a video projector was showing images. The Blogger Academy mid-session.
From that first moment, at the very second when one of the members got up to let me have one of the two chairs where he was sitting (his name was Juan Juan Almeida, son of the late Commander of the Revolution Juan Almeida Bosque) I noticed something that I would talk with Yoani about hours later: the unbiased atmosphere infusing this interior space where thirty Cuban of all ages take classes about how to build, edit and write one of those sites on the Internet. And where each and every one has absolute freedom to ask or say, disagree or joke, without any scholastic or ideological norms that would limit the naturalness of the space.
I could not spend much time there. I had other obligations that prevented me from doing so. Between Reinaldo and I we agreed to a meeting that night, same place. I couldn’t resist the temptation to go out on the balcony and look at Havana from this fourteenth floor. The panoramic view from which a woman of thirty and some years greets and perceives her surrounding reality, the same while watering her plants as when taking in the odors from the city below. That portion or reality that is then transformed into brief posts: the frame invisible, subjective, that sustain that which is called Generation Y. I took a couple of photos. Then, ashamed of walking out in the middle of class, I left.
What is the true extent of a campaign of defamation? Or better yet: Are there limits, insurmountable barriers, for a campaign of defamation?
I’m not sure why, but while the elevator carried me up, this pair of questions take over my thoughts. Perhaps it’s just philosophical curiosity. Or perhaps my inner self, well-prepared, wants to train in these activities: well I know that after entering this apartment to do the interview, I will figure on some list, my face will appear on some recordings as a possible “recruit” of the enemy militias. I smile while walking down the hall that separates the elevator from Apartment “B”. It is my salute to the cameras that perhaps watch this hallway. I would like to shout, “Good evening!”, but I don’t know if those who are listening behind the installed microphones would know I was talking to them.
It is not Yoani who opens, but an adolescent whom later I will know is her son, named Teo. While he goes and looks for his mother, I look around: the difference between what I found in the day and the room I see now is huge. Without the thirty plastic chairs, with a sober but elegant décor, the apartment exudes peace. And good taste. A soft light, yellow, falls on the interior that also reflects the distant lights of the city, beautiful. The presence of many books, plants and fish (in a fishbowl), and a dog that is affectionate to the point of delirium, all notably humanize the space.
“It’s nice,” I tell Yoani, now that we are sitting face to face with the tranquility that every interviewer longs for, “I can’t stop feeling surprised that I’m here. In one of the ‘headquarters of the resistance.’ The home of one of the people most hated and attacked by the official media of my country.”
She smiles and nods.
“The process of demonization against a person achieves this. And it happens even to those who don’t believe the lies being told against the demonized, but it is the doubt, the oddness of seeing this person as a being of flesh and bone, that will always remain.
I don’t say it, but that is not my real reason. I can’t express myself exactly. Along with the surprise is a mixture of pleasure and a more subtle emotion that I feel right now. Why? Perhaps because an intimate dialog with Yoani Sanchez, the most notorious and controversial blogger in this country, and one of the most well-known figures of cyberspace at an international level, exercises a necromantic seduction on the journalist that I am.
And it is not about her international prizes, her name on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people. Nor is the seduction born of the thousands of readers in 16 languages who access Generation Y every day, or that this Cuban with a humble and insignificant image has managed to get seven responses from Barack Obama, the president of the United States.
I admit it: I have read enough of what she writes, I’ve accessed her blog with a certain regularity, but I don’t consider myself one of her faithful. That is, I don’t consider myself one of the legion of familiar readers whom Yoani has earned with her posts. In my case, it is more about the interest woken in me by the hated, the reviled, the voiceless, or the alternative voices. And also, why not, the frank admiration generated in me by those who defend their beliefs, above all, in the face of barriers and repression, and who are capable of taking their positions knowing that the price they will pay for them is, usually, quite high.
It took very little for Yoani and her husband, the journalist Reinaldo Escobar, to be at the center, again, of the controversial politics of my belligerent Cuba. One day three unidentified people in the middle of Havana staged an act in the indubitable Sicilian style: for twenty-five minutes they threatened, physically assaulted, and insulted, inside a car, this woman whose height and weight are still those of a fragile teenager. Together with another blogger friend that were abandoned in a distant neighborhood. A few days later, when he was able to respond coherently and was not consumed with anger, her husband decided to challenge one of these characters to a “duel of words,” for him to explain the justification for this brutal act. At 5:00 in the afternoon of the appointed day, Reinaldo Escobar waited for the meeting which never happened. In its place, a mob of youth in agents camouflaged in civilian clothes, attacked him in a pitiful session whose images spread around the world. Obviously: as a patriotic response from a group of university students to some thugs, mercenaries and traitors who had offended their nation.
I think of this now that both of them (Reinaldo had also left the room but now was sitting next to us) set out to answer my questions. I am thinking of an imagine they I remember vividly: Yoani writing with her laptop on a table at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, and the official press publishing her photos with the caption: “Yoani Sanchez, in the midst of her mercenary work.” Along with ideas, questions, unease, with a small click I activate my handheld recorder.
“Yoani, when and how was this whole story born?” I start at last. “So you remember the moment that you thought of Generation Y as the work to break your silence?”
Yoani: Keep in mind I had always considered myself a diminutive person. Insignificant if you like. Something to compare me to would be an ant, because I was always very active doing my little things. And of course, the question is: How from this little thing could such a huge phenomenon come? But for me, it is the physical proof, personal, that don’t need great purposes or great deeds, nor projects that from the start try to be very comprehensive, for the final result to turn out this way.
I started writing my blog in April 2007 as a process of personal exorcism. It is not commonplace, so I feel, and I felt at the time, ‘I can’t take it any more, so I can leave on a raft or I can dedicate myself to writing the things I see around me that the official press does not reflect.’ These things that I call my demons, and that are based on a very strong component of frustration. The frustration burdens my generation.
A generation that was promised a country that has never come true. A generation that has seen their parents disappointed, taken off their masks, embraced a faith although years before they declared themselves atheists; a generation that has seen their friends leave, and that has seen the collapse of all the exterior walls but none of the interior ones.
And so all of this gives my blog a quite skeptical component, with a mix of cynicism, ‘I have already seen everything, I am 34 and I know perfectly what surrounds me.’ This is the foundation of what I do.
Now, although people tend to link the origin of events to the explosion, usually it’s not like that, and in this case it was not like that. I started Generation Y in April 2007, and in August or September of that year I still didn’t know if anyone was reading me or not. My site was out there, in the immensity of the Internet, where there are millions and millions of spaces, and I didn’t even have the opportunity to see if people were reading me because the infrastructure was very rough. Even though I’d had computers as a hobby (note that I built my first computer in 1994), when I decided to open the blog I didn’t even know the correct software to do it. Then my page was very elementary, the readers could not interact, not even leave me a comment. And so I didn’t know if I had three thousand readers a week, or two. I launched my bottle on the sea; if they read me of if they didn’t, it didn’t matter, I needed to write. I even remember that when people close to me comments their reactions were of the type, “Don’t waste your time on this, why, what’s the point?”
However a number of factors began to come together that were contributing to this bottle in the sea acquiring increasing strength. It is something that happens with every phenomenon, and certainly, not Yoani Sanchez, but Generation Y is a phenomenon composed of readers, translators, friends and even enemies.
What were these circumstances or peculiarities? Well, in the first place, that from this moment the people who were blogging from inside the Island in a critical way, more attached to the realities than to the political slogans, did so under pseudonyms, and suddenly this 32-year-old woman appeared, of a generation that had remained silent, that had preferred to emigrate or shut up, and she showed her face and said, “My name is Yoani Sanchez and my identify card number is 75090424130.” That shocked people. They said, “How is this possible? The whole world hides behind a mask, pretending or escaping, and suddenly this fragile woman is throwing herself into the mouths of the sharks.”
The speculations started. “Yoani doesn’t exist, Yoani is a virtual being, Yoani isn’t located in Cuba, it is a group of people or the pseudonym of another person…” In short the great conspiracy theory. But already here we have a first element of significance.
Also another element converged: there has been a change in power in Cuba. A symbolic change, more continuity than rupture, more feudal inheritance than a country with a new president, but all this had generated a certain expectation toward this little island that was already pretty exciting as a theme.
And also we are speaking of a country with an incredible capacity for self-narration: the Internet amplified everything. Then, on this field, with the megaphone I’d put in front of my mouth, and my rough little site, but a certain identity and the honesty to say, “This is me, I’m ready for anything,” I began my work, and generated a lot of sympathy. People started to connect and say, “Wait! This girl is saying something that whether I agree with it or not, is coming from her heart.” Everything is riding on it…
So do you believe that regardless of the blog itself, and of the texts published in it, the success of Generation Y is the result of external factors as well…
Yoani: I think so, although I can’t be absolutely certain; you would have to ask the readers.
Reinaldo: There is a key word here, the word “rarity.” It was a rarity for a person to show her face in something like this. And we already know that the unusual is enormously attractive. Of course then it began appearing in the media and was gaining more attention…
Yoani: Here I come [she interrupts him, picking up the idea where she had left off], suddenly from the Island of the disconnected someone starts to use the valuable tool of the Internet in a different way. Who had used it up to now? The official media, people who had an account though UNEAC [the writer’s union] or some official institution, but “up there.” And suddenly this voice appears in the virtual world from a country with almost no access to the web.
On top of that, there is the machismo factor. We live in a very macho society, where it has always been the men who established the guidelines, set the standard. And then a woman emerges, one who declares herself a coward (from the beginning I announced in my profile that my blog was an exercise in cowardice), who is known to be fragile, with fears, who is a mother and would be better off cleaning the windows of her house, and she decides to assume roles that supposedly don’t belong to her.
I think even the way it is written has influenced its reception. Without verbal violence, I have never used verbal violence in my writings, I have not insulted or attacked anyone, never used an incendiary adjective, and that restraint may have gained the attention and sympathy of many people
Then came October, still in 2007, and Reuters did a small article on Generation Y that generated a little more interest. I found the right software to improve my blog, though I was able to implement it only in late December. Then came The Wall Street Journal with a cover story, referring to the blogger phenomenon in general, and focusing on my blog. That itself was an important step in the recognition of my space.
But what happened was, the readers came and they stayed. Users could have come once and not come back. Press coverage doesn’t make a site. The readers who stay because they feel at home, they feel that Generation Y is a public place or a neighborhood where they can sit and talk or argue with a friend. And they have stayed there, right up to today. In this very moment my blog is alive, while I am sitting here, talking to you. People are recounting, narrating, publishing, and that is the most important wealth there is.
Let us now define this pair, this marriage is also a work team. Reinaldo Escobar, I understand that you are a degreed journalist, and that among other media you worked on the daily “Juventud Rebelde,” What happened in your case. How did you go from being a journalist on the national media to confrontation with the regime?
Reinaldo: Yes, I graduated from the School of Journalism at the University of Havana in 1971. I worked for 14 years on the magazine Cuba International, that was one of the magazines published in the socialist countries to project an image that everything was going well. You remember those magazines with which we covered our schoolbooks: Poland, Bulgaria… well that was more or less the magazine Cuba International. A publication barely sold in the country, but it circulated in the Soviet Union and in all those years I was collecting a salary to be a spin doctor. Until I got tired of it and decided to go to work for the newspaper Juventud Rebelde.
(We took just a few minutes, but one characteristic that shines through: the talent they both have as great conversationalists. They dialog with skill, fluidity, relying on ideas that are well thought out, whole, very sharp. Yoani has a voice that seems, perhaps, the only strong feature of her anatomy; not because of its tone which is not serious so much as solid, but for the emphasis she puts on her words. Reinaldo speaks with an lively rhythm that forces you to be aware of each new idea.)
I got to Juventud Rebelde in 1987. We were in the midst of the Perestroika and Glasnost era in the USSR, and I came to JR like a kamikaze; I wasn’t looking for what most journalists wanted in their work place, to keep their jobs, rather I dedicated myself to doing everything possible to show what I could or could not do in the journalism that interested me. And somehow I managed to publish some things that I feel very proud of. And of course they threw me out. I lasted a year and a half… too long I would say. In December of 1988 in a meeting at the newspaper they told me, “You don’t work for us any more, you cannot exercise your profession.”
How am I going to live? I had various jobs: in the National Library, I was an elevator mechanic, until I finally stopped working for the State and began to earn a living as a Spanish teacher for foreigners. And from 1989 I began publishing my own articles outside Cuba. Still I didn't use the term “independent journalist,” that is a more recent definition, I was a freelance journalist at the time.
I never participated in any conglomerate of independent journalists that were beginning to emerge then. I didn’t even have an agency, even though I have excellent relationship with those who founded these agencies, people like Raul Rivero, one of my classmates at the University, colleague at Cuba International, and great personal friend. However I never wanted to belong to any of these organizations.
So I was a free agent until the emergence of the digital magazine, Consenso, which Yoani and I founded in 2004. Yoani was the Webmaster and I was the Managing Editor. She was the one who infected me with this blogger virus, so that at the end of 2007, after she already had, I also started my own site.
An experience that is disconcerting? Beautiful? How would you define it? You who are one of a generation of reporters who were not born with the technology, nor with all these ways of communicating?
Reinaldo: It’s the greatest experience, I tell you sincerely. Writing for a blog is a journalistic experience totally distinct from what I knew, and now I am going to steal a phrase from Yoani, a phrase she likes very much: When you have a blog you are the Director himself, the Editor in Chief, the censor, the administrator and the union rep. You are everything. And that gives you unlimited freedom.
We can tell you that we have fully experienced what we know as freedom of expression, because we write in our blogs what-we-want. The limits? Fine, what we don’t want to do. It’s that simple.
Yoani, when I read about you, when I search for information, and including when your case is debated in largely intellectual circles, you discover that one of the most frequent attacks is to define you as a provocateur. Or, “She disguised herself with a wig to go to meeting where she wasn’t invited, or displayed a banner at a Pablo Milanes concert because she makes her living as a provocateur, it’s that simple.” What do you say about that?
Yoani: Look, for many years I considered myself a person who had the gift of invisibility. In the sense of passing through places without anyone noticing me, and I enjoyed it. I think that one of the personal costs my blog has brought me is an excess of visibility that at times is annoying, especially for someone of my nature.
Now, [she makes an inflection in her voice, a small break, I have a feeling that she has heard this accusation so many times that her arguments should be more than ready], to consider it a provocation that I wanted to participate in a debate on a subject like the Internet, which I am so close to, and where it is a crime to exclude this incredibly important part of Cubans who use the web to communicate (which is what the alternative blogosphere), I think that is to circumscribe the duties of a citizen to a very narrow field. I cannot see a provocation in trying to enter a site where they are going to have such a discussion. On the other hand, life showed that if I had not been wearing a wig I would not have been allowed to enter because many other people in this alternative sector remained outside.
I took the microphone, I spoke calmly, I said that I did not understand why blogs were censored I didn’t scream, I didn’t insult anyone. Therefore, to see that as a provocation seem to my a very quick and superficial judgment. And it is the same to consider it a provocation that a citizen comes with a cloth with the name of a rock singer (Gorki) on it, and decides to display it at a concert. Whoever thinks this is over the limit, is thinking in a preconceived way these actions are not incumbent on a citizen, a vision that I am not in agreement with.
Anyway, look, like I tell my friends, I wore glasses and braces on my teeth for 14 years of my life, and that toughened my skin against insult, teasing and mockery. So whatever they say to me I assume, “they’re probably right.” I mean that sincerely.
There are those who think I’m a provocateur. I can coexist with them perfectly. What happens is that they cannot coexist with me. They brand me as a provocateur and I can accept it, but if I say to them, “You are intolerant, you are sectarian,” they break out in hives, they swell up, they burst, and they vomit in my face. Evidently there is something that is not working in the citizen chemistry of this country. Me, if someone says something to me I respond, “Let’s discuss it, show me, you can probably do it, then you can make me a caricature and hang me up a little sign of provocateur.” But let me express myself. Because provocateurs have a right to express themselves.
What’s more, provocation is an elements of change The provocateur in a society does what Lennon did: Marvelous songs. The provocateur in a society does what Thomas Mann did: Wonderful novels. The provocateur in a society does what Gandhi did in India: Free it.
So welcome to the provocateurs, which is not the same thing as being a terrorist, or an abuser, or intolerant. Provocateur is a dynamic term, changing, and, therefore, revolutionary.
The other great argument against you, I continue, and I think it is the most repeated, is the concept of “product.” On other words: Yoani becomes the most recent “product” made by the enemy for the confrontation, so you do not do your own thinking. You would be the culmination of a plan that was conceived abroad, and they chose you, chose all of you, as puppets for its execution. To be frank, you’re very susceptible to this suspicion. Your media reach makes you very prone to being though part of a project of subversion, valid or not from an ethical or ideological point of view. Is Yoani Sanchez a soldier who obeys orders, an employee, a piece in some game?
Yoani: I answer in the same Zen way of thinking that I say everything: People have the right to think that or anything else that comes to mind. If I have learned anything in my life, it is to doubt anything that generates a feeling of unanimous approval. Pay attention and say away from anyone whom the whole world considers a savior, and the whole world will approve you actions When you meet up with people like that, as once this people met, get away quickly: these are the truly dangerous. Those whom everyone applauds, those to whom all pay homage, without a single criticism or attack. Beware! Here we have a “product”, and it is dangerous.
So these hallucinations of some conspiracy theory, rest on the assumptions that individuals cannot be by themselves. They rest on the assumption that individuals are too insignificant to take the highest initiatives. The theory that you have to build form the outside, train in a military camp, be given a precise file with what you have to do, based on the premise that the spark cannot be born in a person. And that, you don’t have to do anything more than look at the history of humanity to realize that this a precept that vanishes by itself. Who lit the spark of Jesus? Who lit the many sparks that have arisen in our history? Was it imperialism, then, too?
I know the essence itself of my blog. I know all the walls I have had to beat on, all the difficulties I have faced to carry it forward. And it has not been a bed of roses. So, when those critics analyze my case they are only seeing the merits: the Ortega y Gasset prize, the list in Time Magazine, the readers of Generation Y, but they seem to ignore the immense problems that must be overcome to do this.
I will never be able to demonstrate otherwise. To demonstrate that I am not a brain-for-hire. How can I show that I am not puppet? Fine, I don’t have strings – raise the arms, move them, stage your idea – look, there are those who see it. Anyway, one does not have to prove his innocence, the accusers have to prove you are guilty. And to prove that a person is fabricated takes work and testing, because if not it is a crude process of defamation.
As I am a citizen who lives in a country where the State makes and re-makes the laws at will, where it has a monopoly on the media, the only thing left for me is to do a lot of Tai-Chi, to have Zen thinking, to do a lot of Yoga on my balcony, so I will not get depressed at the insults I cannot refute publicly. The day that I would be in court and say, “Where is the proof? Show me the invoice. Show me the record or payment or as you call it, show me my CIA card, show me the photos of the alleged meetings, and then we’ll come to an agreement.” Meanwhile so many insults are not answered.
I try not to let those insults affect my writing. I try to not let these allegations radicalize me. I try not to turn into a machine of insults. I will respond with my chronicles every day, because life is responsible for putting everything in its place. Look, when I started they said I didn’t exist, that Yoani Sanchez is a group of 30 people, and in the end they have to admit that this little person lives in Havana, has a son and writes a blog.
Treatment of these insults do not affect my writing. I try to make these allegations have not radicalized me. I do not become a machine of insults. I'll respond with my chronicles of every day, because life is responsible for putting everything in its place. Look, when I started saying that I did not exist, which Yoani Sanchez was a group of 30 people, and finally had to admit that that guy lives in Havana, has a son and write a blog.
Now all this may have brought you much satisfaction, Yoani, but certainly a life of confrontation like the one you have has to generate conflicts, problems, sorrows. The price to be paid for saying what you feel, being consistent with yourself, sometimes it is immense. Tell me about the joys, but also of the pains that have come into your life with Generation Y.
Yoani: Look, I consider myself a happy person. However I have a lot of frustration at the social level because I can not fulfill myself as a citizen to the extent that I would like. I can not have the expression or the freedom of opinion I would like.
But why do I tell you I am happy? Because I have a wonderful family, because I have great friends (even though I have lost some and I will tell you about that in the other part of this response), because above all I am nourished by small things. And these small things cannot be taken away. I am nourished by seeing the sunrise from my balcony, that the lemon tree planted by my door is flowering, that I come across a good book, listen to good music. I love the small things. I appreciate the affection of these small people who are all around me, people who fortunately do not suffer from the neurosis that has stressed this Cuba of material shortages, mistrust, problems of control, in short… And long ago I broke with all that. I was born in a solar, a tenement, in Cayo Hueso, I come from an ancestral culture, and one fine day I told myself I could not continue that. That tension, that always saying something bad about another, that reacting with violence that I learned as a child, I decided not to pass that on to my son. Perhaps from that comes a great part of my happiness.
But of course in these three years I have often stopped to thing: “OK fine, why so much fuss over a few articles I write.” I am not a uniform block, and there are days when I tell myself, “what I’ve done is so great,” and others when I tell myself, “I could have stayed the same anonymous housewife and it would certainly have been easier.” The human mind oscillates, as do our feelings. And this I honestly confess.
The personal cost? Is the highest. Defamation, the attempts to destroy me socially, to stigmatize me, to demonize me to people That is strong [she pauses and I am aware of the emphasis in this phrase], it is very strong because against that, in a country like this there are no ways to fight it or avoid it. It’s you versus what they say about you.
I have friends who’ve distanced themselves from our house to protect themselves. People who also left confused by the negative propaganda. And I forgive them all. Who know, Maybe I would have done the same if I were in their shoes. Someday maybe they will return and say, “I was always stood behind her”; everything is possible because opportunism has a thousand faces.
Within the shadows of my life are the police persecutions, which are not illusions of my paranoid mind because I’m not a paranoid woman. When I started to notice them they had already been following me for months. And they did nothing to hide themselves, we have these police operatives below our house We have friends who have been “visited” simply for calling our telephone number. My telephone is tapped: I have no doubt because I’ve done some tests. I’ve played around a big, “I’m going to leave at this time for that place,” and there they are.
Clashes with the police, a little 25 minute kidnapping where together with another blogger I was beaten and insulted by three men with no identification. Summonses. The first police summons I received was to sit me in a chair and tell me, almost shouting, “You are disqualified for dialogue.” So, from December 7, 2008, they gave me a warning: Stay away, we don’t want to talk with you.
However, when I turn the page after everything I tell myself, I don’t want to become a victim. I laugh with my friends, dance, I have a dog, Sata, and a cat, Barcino, and some Goldfish in the aquarium… [Reinaldo clarifies, in passing, “The fish are mine.”]
Yoani: That’s true, the fish are yours. I am deeply responsible for what I do and every word I write has the same conviction that I would pay for it with the scaffold if necessary.
“Even prison?” I specify, and I can’t help looking into her eyes.
Yoani: Even prison. And it’s not about courage, but I have a spiritual world that I am constantly trying to nourish, and I’m prepared even for the isolation. But I am not telling your that it is necessary to go through difficult situations to validate myself. I don’t believe the scars, the prisons, to be like medals. I would prefer to remain free and for all this and continue writing. But if I had to live with pain, so be it.
So what about Yoani the mother? The Yoani who so many times in this conversation as spoken about her son? What do you think in all this about the woman who is in charge of the care of a 14-year-old son?
Yoani: My son is one of the reasons that led me to this. To see him I have seen the repetition of certain cycles that occur in my life and that produce much tedium and much pain. The cycle of pretending, the cycle of repeating slogans, the cycle of indoctrination in the schools.
There is a phrase we use a lot, “What we most fear is to have to live in fear.” But more than that, what I fear is having given life to a person who lives in fear. I tell him, “Son, take fear as a premise of your life.” This frighten me.
Then, also, I brought my son to this place. With his incisive look and his pointed questions. In 2003, during that Black Spring, when Reinaldo and I had to tell Teo that someone who is practically a member of the family, Adolfo Fernandez Saenz, was in jail for being an independent journalist, for expressing himself and living like a free men, Teo wanted to know more, wanted to know the reasons why he was arrested. I remember Reinaldo saying to him, “Adolfo is in prison because he is a very brave man,” and the response came at like an arrow, “Then you continue to be free because you are a little bit cowardly.”
I write a blog so that my son will not label me a coward. I write a blog so that when my grandchildren ask my son what their grandmother did, if she remained silent, my son will tell them, “She didn’t move a single wall, but the truth is she never shut up.”
Reinaldo, thinking a little about the role of the intellectuals in our society today, it occurs to me: when I hear the songs of musicians that could be defined as “standing up to,” or when I read the literature of some writers attached to the reality we live, I always have one question, “to what extent to artists, thinking men, have influence on our reality and up to what point have they been the only chroniclers who describe what is happening, without going any further? In the case of you two, what is the real extent of your blogs, and this space that has been given the name of the alternative blogosphere? What is the real influence of what they are doing.
Reinaldo: I'll make a comparison that seems exaggerated, but it illustrates very well what I think. And I’ll assert that it’s a comparison not between individuals but between situations.
As is well known, Martí is the apostle of Cuban independence. The man who built, in his mind, that nation we would all have some day. However, I’ve always wondered how many of the men, who were on horseback with a machete in their hands, who participated in the war alongside him, read a single one of his texts. José Martí wrote in the newspaper Patria, he wrote in La Nación of Buenos Aires, among many others, but those newspapers were not sold on the newsstands of Cuba. This is a man who became known later. And can anyone deny the enormous influence that Martí had in the struggle for independence, and in the war of 1895?
So, the fact that people don’t clearly know your work does not imply that the influence of it doesn’t exist. And I make this comparison because I am convinced that today there are many more who read the independent journalists, the alternative bloggers, and who receive from all of them a seed of freedom, than those who, in the late 1800s, read the texts of Martí. I also say it because on occasion the role of the intellectuals in social change is too magnificent. I think that intellectuals are a critical conscience of society, with a very important role, but they are not the definitive agents of change in a society. Society changes because it has to, because the problems are there and people are tired of them, and then the solutions appear in one form or another, sooner or later. And the responsibility o the intellectuals is undeniable, but it doesn’t mean that without you things won’t happen.
Look, in 1962 Che Guevara wrote a text that is much talked about, a textbook titled, Man and Socialism in Cuba. And when in this writing he speak of Cuban intellectuals, he says that the original sin of the intellectuals was to not have been revolutionaries. This accusation I not totally devoid of the truth, because in the end, none of the Origenistas, not Alejo Carpentier, not Guillen who was in exile, not Alicia Alonso, none of them did anything in the direct plan for the revolution, nothing against Batista. What they did was to nourish the soul of the nation. In other words, they had made pamphlets, not fired a shot in the Sierra Maestra. But a nation with a well-nourished soul does not support a dictatorship…
And for a long time, I saw in Che Guevara’s accusation a valid argument, but today when I try to draw an analogy between the dictatorship that we have now and the previous one in which the intellectuals didn’t participate in the struggle either, the first thing I tell myself is, “Reinaldo, you are not going to think like Che Guevara.” I am not going to be the one who says now that the intellectuals are committing the original sin of always, and not fighting against it as they should.
Rather, it is about everyone doing what is within their own limitations, choosing their own paths. But for my part when I go to see a good play at the theater, or dance, or I go to a great concert, and I see that there is an artist ratifying their individual personality, this is what gives human value to people, this is like saying, “you are an individual,” although they are not talking about the difficulties or lashing out against the dictatorship, for me they are engaging in a rebellious act. Because a system of this nature doesn’t function with individuals, with free human beings, rather it functions with mechanized people, without a self or a soul.
For me, it is enough that the artists and intellectuals nourish this individual sensibility, because they are doing what is their responsibility.
With respect to the activities that are outright oppositional, Reinaldo: many Cubans who dissent from the Government direction, whether totally or in part, have no respect for or confidence in the work of the activists and opposition parties that exist on the Island. They don’t give credence to their actions. What opinion do you think the opposition merits today in Cuba?
Reinaldo: Well, I will speak in plural because although we have similarities and differences in our thinking, on this subject Yoani and I are in complete agreement. First, we never define ourselves as opponents. The self-definition that we use, after a great deal of wracking our brains looking for the most precise, is “independent citizens.” I am in independent citizen. I am a man who has refused to act in any way other than that of a free man. If the Government and the authorities of this country where I live are bothered by the fact that I conduct myself as a free man, then they reprimand me. But I do not feel myself to be an opponent, because for me an opponent is someone who has a programmatic platform, who has a party, a political objective, and that is not so in my case, or in our case.
I’m disgusted. I’m a non-conformist. But not an opponent.
Now, the country is sick, and the opposition does not have to be the only healthy branch. Quoting the so perfect phrase of our friend Dagoberto Valdes, a profound anthropological damage has happened here, that affects every sphere of society. That’s rue. However, despite our admitting this, there can’t be a healthy opposition where the people, to exercise their dissenting opinion have to do things prohibited by law. A long time ago I wrote an article titled, “The spines of the money,” where I touched on this theme, and I said that politics can’t be done without economic resources, because it’s impossible to do politics if you can’t print a document, travel around the territory, make telephone calls, contact people through the Internet… Politics costs money like any other human activity. This Government prohibits undertaking private economic activities to cover the costs of politics, and then those who are engaged in some political activity have the choice of, 1, receiving funding for their work, or 2, renouncing politics. Thus, the opposition groups are obligated, sooner or later, to receive help that comes from where? The only place it can come from, outside Cuba.
Yoani: As Fidel Castro once received aid from Cuban millionaires living outside the country, , small Mexican groups, Carlos Prío Socarrás… as before José Martí had received help, which came from funds raised for politics from the tobacco growers of Tampa…
Reinaldo: So money inevitably has poisoned the activities of the opposition. And it has done so for the simple reason that there is no chance to clear the accounts like anywhere in the world, whether or not it is the opposition. In whatever part of the world they have transparent finances, even a web page where they publish, “We have just received fifty cents from donor X.” While here there is no chance of having this transparency, the opposition is afflicted as well with various problems related to money.
Another factor that is much talked about, certainly, is the lack of unity among the opposition. Our country has had an old affliction, historic, called caudillism or “strongman rule.” And pay attention to what I say: I know that all the opposition would like to be unified, but all of them want on their terms. And that doesn’t take you very far in any serious political activity.
Yoani: Look, in a country where there is a monopoly so immense on the part of the State of the laws, the media, the political police (who are always in the hands of the State but in our case there is a very great disproportion between the number of people in the country in the number of people who work for the political police, which is, in fact, State Security). In a country with these characteristics it very difficult to come out unscathed, unless you are part of the system.
And what we also see in the opposition is the systematic work of people who have infiltrated, who have eroded much of what were spontaneous movements: they infiltrate them, create pre-planned conflicts and end up destroying them. They begin to apply a series of tests that shouldn’t jeopardize public opinion but unfortunately in a country so misinformed they do jeopardize it – do they pick their nose, is their refrigerator full, are they gay – and suddenly they present the supposed proofs in public to destroy the morale of these people who are not given a minute to defend themselves.
I recall another abominable act: The publication of the book titled El Camaján [The Leech or The Parasite], to destroy the opposition figure Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, and along with this publication we have that this person is alive and lives in this city, that his telephone number is in the public domain, and he is the “protagonist” of a book of over a hundred pages that includes not a single testimony from him himself. For me this is a legal outrages, and above all a journalistic disgrace. That a journalist would write a book about a living figure without even interviewing this person.
Another thing: For many years here we have been placed in the same category with people whose work, principles, and even methods are different, and they lump us together just because they disagree with the official positions. The government throws people like Ventura Novo, Posada Carriles, and Yoani Sánchez into the same pot. And this is absurd. You can not put someone like Ángel Santiesteban, who has used words to criticize, to tell very harsh stories of the reality, even of prison in Cuba, with a person who is politically active, or at the other extreme with a terrorist. No! Words are something different. They cannot be equated with someone who places a bomb and kills people; it’s not the same as writing what you see or feel or defending, with words, what you believe.
And I suffer that stigmatization first hand. Who is Yoani Sanchez? She is a chronicler who tells of things we don’t like, so Yoani Sanchez is a terrorist, she’s a mercenary, she’s the devil. With such a defamation machine it’s too difficult to render objective judgments on those who make the opposition work. We’ve done too much to poison minds. We hear children scream – Traitors! Worms! – and afterward it turns out that when you meet them personally you find out that it was people who are restless, who sometimes wore jeans, or an earring. Because of this I don’t let the negative propaganda affect me: I am trying to test people, to know if they are worthy or not, but I make up my own mind.
Reinaldo: With regards to the work of those opposition parties I will give you an example to show to what point they even asphyxiate freedoms and rights. I do not think that the United States is the perfect model of democracy, I think they still have a lot of problems, but I always noticed that President Nixon had to resign because it was discovered that he had sent someone to spy on the Democratic Party in Watergate. Imagine for yourself, then, how t is acceptable that here it is publically known that this Government has a system designed to infiltrate the opposition political parties, and that what cost Nixon his presidency is seen here as normal, very fair.
I spend my life saying that if one day I had the opportunity to be in front of the Cuban television cameras for fives seconds, I know very well what I would say. Think about it, you have to prepare what you would say if those five seconds ever came. I even have my speech reduced to three seconds. My three-second speech would be simply: “Decriminalize political dissent.” That’s all.
When you decriminalize political dissent you have an opening to where the political police can disappear, as happened here once with the staff assigned to pursue and arrest those who had dollars when these were banned in Cuba. Even I had the curiosity to keep the Law that decriminalized having dollars, which was published on August 13, by the way, and among the reasons given in the preamble to justify this decriminalization, it says something like, “to relieve the workload of the police and courts dealing with this crime.” That is, it does not suppose that people have the right to have any kind of money, but rather that is better to save the effort of those who track down these illegalities. In the same way, the day that political dissent is decriminalized, everything in Section 21, as they call it in their internal codes, they will be able to devote themselves to more useful things like chasing down drug traffickers or pimps.
In my fantasies, when the legalization of political dissent is decreed, the first thing that would happen is that we are going to learn exactly where is the opposition. Why? Because to be an opponent in Cuba today you have to have a certain does of irresponsibility. Even to do what we do you have to be a bit irresponsible, because you know you are endangering the stability of your family, right off the bat.
If you did not have the risk the stability of your family to undertake some kind of political activity contrary to the Government, that would channel people of a different nature into political work. And this would give oxygen to the opposition, which would not be solely composed of kamikaze types, extreme risk takers, but also of ordinary individuals.
And when I talk of allowing political dissent I go to the extreme that I would like to see in the chambers of Cuba, in the communication media, a person defending the position that Cuba should be annexed to the United States, an idea I have nothing in common with and think would be an atrocity. But when I see a guy with an American flag defending this position, then I am going to say, “now dissent has been legalized.” And then the gentleman who is the Professor of Economics at the University, who has an elaborate document he spent ten years preparing, will host a social-democratic program, and say, “Fine, if the annexationist was allowed to speak without going to prison or losing his job, now I can say my piece without running these risks,” and we would learn about true alternative programs.
So it is so important to be able to disagree without paying any price. Because in addition to the right of a human being to express themselves freely, we will begin to see solutions to almost all the problems emerge.
(Evidently they have come, both of them, to the very core of their ideas. They move in this dialogue as a fish in water.)
Yoani: In this country there are slogans that are repeated a lot and one must learn to defend against them. They say to me, “You do not propose solutions,” and my response is that I am not a specialist in anything. If I should look at the reality and from slight impressions I form opinions about everything. But I don’t have the solutions because I’m not an specialist in economics, nor do I have a degree in agriculture, nor could I advance biochemistry. But I have one abracadabra that never fails: “Let people express their opinions and solutions will appear.” I don’t have it myself but I know where it comes from. Because in the same way I can have solutions for the use of the Internet, another will have a solution so that the cafeterias aren’t full of flies but with nothing to ell, or that the agriculture will produce what is needed.
I think this is called “constructive criticism,” to say that if you don’t provide solutions don’t talk; it’s another way of saying, “Be satisfied and shut up.”
I glanced at my watch; I had spent two hours with these two people. Night has fallen, for a moment I feel a little ashamed for stealing so much of their time. They are in their home, maybe they have a lot to do. However, something makes me abandon this idea: they have each spoken for several minutes and have done it with visible pleasure. I not on my pad (which is not a blog) the last question, with some sadness in the gesture. If I had my way the sun would surprise me from the balcony, talking…
“Finally Yoani: Paradoxical as it may seem, if you did not live in this country you probably would not have the international name that you have. Has it been necessary to have a windmill to tilt against to become the Yoani you are today. My questions is, Would you have been willing to remain anonymous, to renounce the ‘cyber-fame’, in exchange for a dream country?”
Yoani: If I had lived in Stockholm I would have had a deeply critical blog – she reacts immediately, she doesn’t have to think about it – because it stems from my restlessness as a person, it is my essence. From childhood I have lived questioning everything, asking about everything.
With respect to Yoani Sanchez and Generation Y they have committed successive blunders that have enhanced the phenomenon much more than have the prizes and the international recognition. The fact that Fidel Castro directed a barrage of insults at me in the prologue of the book, Fidel, Bolivia and Something More, I think catapulted me much more than Time Magazine. The fact that my name has become a combination of letters prohibited in institutions has fueled the pleasure of the forbidden, it is immensely captivating. Neither one of these is my fault. I think they did not understand the phenomenon in time. They did not realize they were managing profoundly explosive material which is the Internet, where you can insult a person but the only thing that happens is that it generates more hits on the servers. It increases the entries in Google.
I’ve taken a very Zen approach. I’ve never responded to the attacks: he who excuses himself accuses himself and it is not my tonic. But this has bothered them even more and they have continued to increases the insults, and so have generated more hits. So the phenomenon has gotten away from them. I took advantage of that. How? I published more, became more daring, because my ultimate goal in reality is to behave like a free person one day. To combine the virtual Yoani with the real one, with each one more honest than the other. And taking advantage of this mountain of blunders, I was matching up thoughts to deeds.
Of course the protective shield is not immune. Life shows that. One find day they put me in a Geely car and set four thugs on me. Another day they threaten me and threaten my family, so I’m not immune. But in any event I think the blogger phenomenon has gotten away from them. We are talking about nano-blogs and micro-blogs through Twitter. With 140 characters I can reach a million people. And what can the censors do in the face of that? They can put me in prison, take away my cell phone, and then? Soon someone comes to visit me (because one day they will have to let me have a visitor) and I will dictate 40 Tweets in their ear, this person leaves and via telephone dictates them to someone who puts them on the Internet…
So what I’m telling you is: they and their methods have both aged. They want to deal with current events with the same old methods, when all they achieve is the opposite effect. What’s more, this week I might not publish anything, and the insults they publish about me will refresh Google with new things all having to do with me.
Anyway – I interrupt – I want to emphasize my questions: If the government starts to make the necessary openings, if reality changes, if everyone can say what they want, then probably Yoani Sanchez is diluted. The myth disappears. As the protagonist of this myth, would you accept it gladly?
Yoani: Chico, I have many desires to return to my garden. Perhaps to my anonymous life. I’d love to see Los Pinos Nuevos grow and gain space and notoriety for themselves. But anyway, I know, and as genetically stubborn as I am, I know that in a plural Cuban there will be just as much to do. And words will have a lot to do. There will a lot of work to point out to power, to say to them, “Be careful, the citizens need respect. They have rights.” Be it a social-democratic government or a liberal one or whatever, there will always be a need for critical voices. And Yoani Sanchez will continue in this direction, perhaps helping some friends start a newspaper, opening a Blogger Academy that is not prohibited, thinking about how to improve things in the country where I live. But I don’t need to be confrontational. I exist as a person before and after the confrontation and I’m delighted not to have to feel myself under the boot to be able, then, in the most expressive way, to create write, express myself without the constant fear of being beheaded or killed for it socially.
My blog is my journal, and under whatever system of government I would have a diary like this. It is a journal where the person who is reading it is going to reconstruct this being called Yoani Sanchez, with her doubts, her harangues, with her guts hanging out. And in that essence I show in Generation Y, the reader can say, “This is a person who much have frustrations, contradictions even, but it can’t be a bad person.” This truth matters to me. Let those who read me discover a person who wants what’s good for her country, for her son, for known and unknown beings, who can’t be a bad person.
And I don’t just want what is good, but what people are looking for. Which can certainly be very subjective, very wrong, but against everything and everyone, at least try.
A freak cold for this tropical island forces me to keep my hands in the pockets of my sweater. I make my way slowly down the wide avenue that soon brings me to the statue of Jose Marti in the Plaza of the Revolution. In the distance glows the image of Camilo Cienfuegos on the façade of a building and next to him, from decades earlier, that of Che Guevara.
I walk with a bit of interior melancholy. A vague melancholy, inexplicable if you will. I just had a conversation that I will remember for a long time, I should be happy, but somehow I’m not. I’ve met two Cubans in the flesh, with controversial ideas, but undeniably their own. A couple who introduced me to their son, their dog, an interior world composed of paintings on the wall, books in the bookcase, plants hanging form the ceiling, peace and a great deal of love. They didn’t need this interview, I think. They do not need, at this point, any publicity, in the broadest sense. Why did they open their door to me, why have they talked for more than two hours with a 25-year-old journalist they don’t know, who doesn’t have the least fame, and whom they will hardly ever see in person?
Because they are human beings, I tell myself. Because peering into the abyss where so often the nonconformists lie, the rebels, the questioners; looking in good faith and not with a heart filled with venom, grudges, hatred accumulated that so often is not ours, hatreds that been injected or acquired through the respiratory tract; approaching, in short, the man and not a concept that a television has built against our will, often it is this we found.
Simple human beings. Like me. Like everyone. Two Cubans born under the same sun, on the same land as I and their enemies. A couple of people full of contradictions, errors, vices to overcome. But deep down, that source that we know exists, a couple of Cubans who have seized for themselves the true meaning of country, and who love, above all things, what in our language we call Libertad, Freedom.
And now, neither the cold nor the distance I have to cover on foot, can erase the slight sadness I have inside, to realize that the Government, a system, only a handful of people, have made my country sick. They have infected everyone a little. They have sickened the essence of some men who are not men but androids, and who do not move with love and respect but rather fueled by violence, cowardice. Cubans who have not ceased to exclude, to injure, to stigmatize others only because their ideas are different. And who have continued, at the same time, to infect with the virus of hate so many unprotected people, people with minds easy to corrupt. People who tomorrow will scream insults in a public place, offend, threaten, the same peaceful women who walk in white on behalf of their imprisoned sons and husbands, with a gladioli in their hands. Or at a long-haired blogger who in the morning will take her son to school. A blogger with whom you can differ or agree, whose aesthetic and ideological line can be analyzed from a thousand different viewpoints, but in essence who does not stop being a woman, a Cuban like our mothers and sisters, a human being whose sacred right of dissent deserves respect.
I return, inevitably, to my question: Are there limits for a campaign of defamation, for a movement of hatred? And now, content with my sadness, Floating like a zombie on this silenced street at midnight, with the voices of Yoani and Reinaldo still ringing in my head, I can’t avoid answering myself, almost in a whisper: Yes, there are.
The moment that you cross the barrier, that you break the curse, and knock on the door with a little flag with the inscription “Internet For All,” you get it; at that precise second in which you resolve to meet your neighbor in person, whom you’ve heard so many bad things about on the radio, you are limiting, forever, the reach of that hatred. You are banishing the influence of slander. And you are being (as I feel in the second I walk next to the immense Marti of the Plaza of the Revolution), free as some would have wished you never were.
This is an excerpt to a version of the song, Epitaph for Vladimir Visotski by Karsmarski Jacek (Polish dissident songwriter), which includes Ciro Diaz in his latest album, The Blue Slug, that I listened to compulsively for at least two months, especially on the street with my mp3 inherited from a friend who now has an I-pod. (Download the lyrics here) (Download the recording and album cover here) The song (in summary, which runs about ten minutes) is about a desperate artist going through the circles of hell in search of an answer or death, and at the end of his journey there is only loneliness and the weight of the supreme power above himself. So I found myself at times catching the bus across Havana at 12 noon in August under the perennial sunshine and with the distressing feeling of not going anywhere, or arriving too late, or going for pleasure ... I feel that I have already arrived at the eighth enclosure (this is the finale of the song) where there is nothing, and I feel useless and empty, and I look at people without faith who walk along the street and who have so much fear that they no longer know they're afraid, and who have seen so many Roundtables and so many news broadcasts that they no longer know what belongs to reality or just to the TV screen. They cannot discern that they no longer believe, but cannot disbelieve either, and just move along past me not going anywhere.