A Conversation with Cuban Blogger Yoani Sanchez (I)

An interview by Salim Lamrani, published on Rebelion Website.

Yoani Sanchez is the new figure of Cuban opposition. Since she created her blog “Generaion Y” back in 2007, she has been granted several international prizes, including the Ortega y Gasset Journalism Prize in 2008, the Bitacoras.com Prize in 2008, the Bob’s Prize in 2008, the Maria Moors Cabot Prize in 2008, granted by the prestigious US University of Columbia. Similarly, the Cuban blogger was selected among the world’s 100 most influential personalities by Time Magazine in 2008, along with George W. Bush, Hu Jintao and Dalai Lama. Yoani´s blog was included on the list of the 25 best blogs of the world by CNN and Time Magazine in 2008.

In November 30, 2008, Spain’s El Pais newspaper included her on its list of the 100 most influential Hispanic-American personalities of the year (a list where you can’t find Fidel or Raul Castro).

Foreign Policy magazine, on its part, included her among the 10 most important intellectuals of the year, while Mexico’s Gato Pardo magazine did the same in 2008.

This impressing landslide of distinctions, as well as their simultaneous occurrence, has raised numerous questions, so much so that Yoani Sanchez, according to her own confession, is absolutely unknown in her own country. How can a person, who is unknown to her neighbors—according to the blogger—, be on the list of the 100 most influential personalities in the world?

A diplomat from a western country, who is close to this atypical opponent of the Cuban government, had read a series of articles I wrote about Yoani Sanchez and that were somewhat critical. He showed the blogger my articles and she wanted to meet me to clear out some points I had referred to. 

The meeting with the young dissident, of controversial fame, did not take place in any dark apartment with closed windows or in a remote site that could avoid the indiscrete ears of “the political police.” On the contrary, the meeting took place in the lobby of the Hotel Plaza, in the heart of the Old Section of Havana, and in a sunny afternoon. The place was packed with people, many foreign tourists wandering around the huge hall of the majestic building that opened its doors in the early 20th century.

Yoani Sanchez has close ties with western embassies. In fact, a simple call by my contact at midday allowed us to set the date just three hours later. And at 3 pm, the blogger showed up smiling, dressed in a long skirt and a blue jersey. She also wore a sports jacket to keep herself warm in the relatively fresh temperature of the Havana winter.

Our conversation lasted nearly two hours as we sat at a table in the bar and in the presence of her husband Reinaldo Escobar, who accompanied her for some 20 minutes before they left the place as they headed for another meeting. Yoani Sanchez appeared very cordial and friendly; she proved her great peace. Her voice was firm and she never showed being uncomfortable. Already used to meeting with the western media, she really masters the arts of communication.

This blogger, a person who looks weak, intelligent and astute is aware that, although hard for her to admit her western media relation is not by mere chance, but because it advocates the setting up of “sui generis” capitalism in Cuba.

The Incident on November 6, 2009

Salim Lamrani: Let´s start with the incident that occurred on November 6, 2009 in Havana. You explained on your blog that you were arrested along another three friends of yours by “three unknown hefty men” during “an afternoon stormed with beating, cries and insults.” You denounced the Cuban police for having committed violence against you. Do you maintain your version of the events?

Yoani Sánchez: Yes indeed, I confirm I was submitted to violence. They held me for 25 minutes. I was beaten. I managed to take a piece of paper that one of the men had in his pocket and I hid it in my mouth. One of them pressed his knee over my chest and the other, from the front seat would beat me in the kidney area and my head so that I opened my mouth and get the piece of paper. For a moment, I thought I would never get out of that car.

SL: the story on your blog is really terrifying. I quote: you spoke of “beats and pushes,” of “beating knuckles,” of “stream of beats,” “Knees on your chest,” beating your “kidneys and […] your head, “pulling you by your hair,” of your face “going red due to pressure and painful body, of “ beats that went on” and “ all those bruises.” However, when you met with the international press on November 9 all those marks had faded it out of your body. How can you explain that?

YS: They are beating professionals.

SL: Ok, but why didn’t you show the pictures of the marks?

YS: I got the pictures. I got the proving images.

SL: So you got the proofs?

YS: I got the proofs in the pictures.

SL: But, why haven’t you published them to reject all rumors saying you might have fabricated this attack so that the press told about your case?

YS: I rather keep them for the time being and not publish them. I want to present them to a court some day so that these three men are judged. I can perfectly recall their faces and I got the pictures of two of them at least. As to the third man, he is still to be identified but since he was the chief, he will be easy to spot. I also have the piece of paper I took from one of them, which has my saliva because I kept it in my mouth. The name of a woman was written in that paper.

SL: Fine. You publish many photos on your blog. It is not difficult to understand why you prefer not to release the pictures this time.

YS: As I told you, I rather keep them for justice.

SL: You are aware that your attitude gives credit to those who think that you fabricated the attack against you, aren’t you?

YS: It is my choice.

SL: However, even the western media, which quite favor you, took some unusual precautious measures when telling your story. BBC correspondent in Havana Fernando Ravberg wrote, for instance, that you “had no bruises, marks or scars.” France Presse news agency told the story by clarifying carefully enough that it is your own version and it gave it  the title: “Cuba: Blooger Yoani Sanchez Says to have been Beaten and Briefly Arrested.” On the other hand, the reporter affirmed that you “were not hurt.”

YS: I wouldn’t like to evaluate their work. I am not who is supposed to judge them. They are professionals who face very complicated situations that I can not evaluate. The fact is that the existence or not of physical marks is not evidence of the event.

SL: But the presence of those marks would reveal that violence took place. That is why publishing the photos would be so important.

YS: You should understand that they are professionals in intimidation. The fact that three unknown men took me to a car without presenting any documents gives me the right to complaint as if they had broken all my bones. The photos are not that important because the illegal act has been committed. Now being so accurate as to say “if it hurts here or there” is just my internal pain.

SL: Ok, but the problem is that you presented it all as a very violent attack. You talked about “kidnapping you in the worst Sicilian Camorra style.”

YS: Yes, that is true, but it is my word against theirs. The fact of getting into these details, if I have bruises or not takes us far off the real subject, which is that they kidnapped me during 25 minutes illegally.

SL: Excuse my insistence, but I think this is important. There is some difference between an identity control, which lasts 25 minutes, and police violence. My question is very simple. You said and I quote: “I had a cheekbone and an eyebrow swollen all during the weekend.” Since you got the pictures, you can now show the marks.

YS: I just told you I rather keep them for court.

SL:  You are aware that some people will find it hard to believe your version, if you do not publish the photos, aren’t you?

YS: I think that by getting into these details we miss the subject. The fact is that three bloggers accompanied by a friend of theirs were on their way to a place in the city, right on the corner of 23 and G streets. We had heard that a group of youngsters had called a march against violence there. They are alternative kind of people, hip hop and rap singers, artists. I would be there as a blogger to make pictures and post them on my blog and make some interviews. On the way to that site we were stopped by a “Geely” car.

SL: Was it an action to prevent you from taking part of the event?

YS: That was the reason, evidently. They never told us that formally, but that was their objective. They told me to get in the car. I asked them who they were. One of them took me by my wrist and I held back. That happened in a Havana zone which is centrally located, right at a bus stop.

SL: So there were people at the place then. I mean there were witnesses.

YS: Yes, there were witnesses but they do not want to talk. They are scared.

SL: Not even in an anonymous way? Why hasn’t the western media interviewed them anonymously as they usually do when they publish critical articles about Cuba?

YS: I can’t explain about the reaction of the press. I can tell them what happened. One of them, a man about fifty years old, with a strong body as if he had ever practiced free wrestling—I tell you this because my father practiced that sports and he has the same body shape-. I have quite weak wrists and I managed to get out of his grasp and I asked him who he was. There were three men plus the driver.

SL: So then, there were four men instead of three.

YS: Yes, but I couldn’t reach to see the driver’s face. “Yoani, get in the car, you know who we are.” I replied: “I don’t know who you are.” The smallest one said: “Listen, you know who I am, you know me well.” I answered him: “No, I don’t know who you are. Who are you? Let me see your papers or just any document.” The other one told me: “Get in the car, do not make things difficult.” Then I started to shout. “Help! Kidnappers!”

SL: Did you know that they were policemen wearing civilian clothes?

YS: I figured it out, but they never showed me any document.

SL:  Then, what was your objective?

YS: I wanted things to be done legally; that is, that they showed me their documents and then they could take me although I suspected they really represented the authority. You can not force a citizen to get in a private car without presenting any documents, or else it is illegal and thus kidnapping.

SL: How did the people at the bus stop react?

YS: The people were astonished because “kidnapping” is not a common word in Cuba; such a phenomenon does not exist here. Then they wondered what was going on. We did not look like criminals. Some tried to approach us but one of the policemen shouted at them: “Do not get into this, these ones are counterrevolutionaries!” And this confirmed that they were part of the political police although I figured it out when I saw the Geely car, a new Chinese make, which has not been sold anywhere in Cuba. These cars only belong to people with the Armed Forces and the Interior Ministries.

.SL: Do you mean that since the beginning you knew that they were policemen wearing civilian clothes because you identified the car they were driving?

YS: I sensed that. On the other hand I confirmed it when one of them called a uniformed policeman. A patrol made up of a woman and a man came and took two of us away. They left us in the hands of these unknown men.

SL: But at that point you did not have any doubt about who they were, did you?

YS: No, but they did not show us any documents. The policemen did not say that they represented Cuban authority. They said no word.

SL: It is hard to understand any interest of Cuban authorities in attacking at the risk of unleashing an international scandal. You are famous. Why would they do that?  

YS: They wanted to make me radical so that I wrote violent articles against them, but they won’t get away with it.

SL: We can not say that you are soft about the Cuban government.

YS: I never use verbal violence or personal attacks. I never use hard adjectives like “bloody repression”, for instance. Their objective was that of having me radicalized.

SL: However you are very tough about the Cuban government. You can read in your blog that: “the ship taking in water is about to be shipwrecked.” You speak about “the shouts of the despot,” of “people in the shadows who, like vampires, feed from our human joy, inoculate us with fear through beating, threats and blackmail,” “the shipwreck of the process, the system, the expectations, the illusions. [It is] [total] shipwreck,” these are really strong words. 

YS: Perhaps they are, though their objective was burning the Yoani Sanchez phenomenon by demonizing me. For that reason my blog was blocked for a long time.

SL: However, it seems surprising that Cuban authorities decided to physically attack you.

YS: It was clumsy. I can’t understand why they prevented me from attending the march since my thinking is quite different from those who use repression. I can’t explain. Perhaps they did not want me to meet with the youths. The police thought I would start a scandal or make an incendiary discourse.  

Back to my arrest; the police took my friends away in an energetic and firm manner, but without any violence. When I realized they would leave us alone with Orlando, and with these three guys I held on tightly to a tree at the place and Claudia grasped my waist in an effort to prevent being separated from me just before she was taken away.

SL:  What’s the use of resisting the police in uniform and run the risk of being accused for that and commit crime? In France, if you resist the police, you run the risk of being imposed sanctions.

YS: They took them away, anyhow. The police woman took Claudia. The other three persons took us to the car and I started to shout again: “Help! This is a Kidnap!

SL: Why? Did you know they were police men not wearing their uniforms?

YS: They did not show any documents. Then, they started to beat me and they pushed me inside the car. Claudia witnessed it and she told about it.

SL: But, You have just told me that the police patrol had taken Claudia away, haven’t you?

YS: She saw the scene from a distance while the police car drove away. I defended myself and launched beats like an animal that feels that its last hour has come. They drove around Vedado as they tried to take the piece of paper out of my mouth. I took one of them by his testicles and he increased his violence. They took  us to a poor neighborhood, La Timba, which is near the Revolution Square. The man stepped down, opened the door of the car and asked us to get out. I did not want to get off. They took us out by force including Orlando and then they left. 

A woman approached us and we told her we had been kidnapped. She took us for insane people and left. The car returned but did not stop. They threw out my purse in which I had my cell phone and my camera.

SL: Did they return your cell and your camera?

YS: Yes

SL: Doesn’t it sound funny to you that they bothered to return? They could have confiscated your cell and your camera, which are your work tools.

YS: Well, I don’t know. It all lasted 25 minutes.

SL: You are aware however, that as long as you do not publish the photos your version will be submitted to doubt and that will cast a shadow on the credibility of all that you say.

YS: I do not care about it.


SL: In 2002 you decided to migrate to Switzerland. Two years later you returned to Cuba. It appears difficult to understand why you left the “European paradise” to return to the country which you describe as hell. My question is simple: Why?

YS: It is a good question. Firstly, I like to go against the current. I like to organize my life in my own way. What is absurd is not the fact of leaving and returning but the Cuban migration laws, which stipulate that any person who spends eleven months abroad loses his or her permanent resident status. Under different conditions, I could spend two years abroad and with the money earned I could return to Cuba to repair my home and do some other things. Then it is not the fact of deciding to return to Cuba that is amazing, but the Cuban migration laws.

SL: Surprising enough is particularly the fact that having the chance to live in one of the richest countries in the world, you had decided to return to your country, which you describe in quite an apocalyptic manner, nearly two years later you left.

YS: There are several reasons for that. First, I was not able to leave with my family. We are a small family but very united with my sister and with my parents. My father was sick during my stay in Switzerland and I was afraid that he could die and that I was not able to see him anymore. I also felt guilty for being living a better life than theirs. Every time I bought a pair of shoes, or that I logged on the Internet, I thought of them. I felt guilty.

SL: OK, but you could help them from Switzerland by sending them money.

YS: That is true, but there is still another reason. I thought that with all I learned in Switzerland I could change things when I returned to Cuba. You also feel this nostalgia for the people, your friends. It was not a well thought decision, but I do not regret it. I wanted to return and so I did. Actually, it’s something that could seem uncommon, but I Iike doing unusual things. I opened a blog and the people asked me why I was doing that, while the blog satisfies me professionally.

SL: That is alright, but despite all these reasons, it is still difficult to understand why you returned to Cuba while people in the West think that all Cubans want to leave their country. It is something even more surprising in your case because you present your country, I repeat, in an apocalyptic way.

YS:  As a philologist I would consider that word, since “apocalyptic” is a grandiloquent term. There is something that characterizes my blog: verbal moderation.

SL: That is not always the case. For instance, you describe Cuba as “a huge prison, with ideological walls.” The terms are quite strong.

YS: I have never written that.

SL: Those were the words you used during an interview with France 24 TV Channel on October 22, 2009.

YS: Did you read that in French or in Spanish?

SL: In French.

YS: Do not trust translations because I never said that. Quite often I come across words I have not said. For instance, Spain’s ABC newspaper attributed words to me that I had never pronounced and I protested that. The article was withdrawn from the Internet site.

SL: Which were those words?

YS: “In Cuban hospitals, more people die from hunger than from diseases.” It was a total lie. I never said that. 

SL: Then, did the western media manipulate what you had said?

YS: I wouldn’t say that.

SL: If they attributed words to you that you did not say; then it is manipulation.

YS: Granma newspaper manipulates reality further more than the western press when it say that I am the product of the Prisa media group.

SL: Exactly, Don’t you think that the western media uses you because you advocate “sui-generis” capitalism in Cuba?

YS: I am not responsible for what the media does. My blog is personal therapy, a kind of exorcism. I have a feeling that I am being more manipulated in my own country than in any other part. You know about this law in Cuba, Law 88 called the “Gag” law, which imprisons the people who do what we are doing.

SL: You mean?

YS: I mean that our conversation may be considered a crime and that you may be punished up to 15 years in jail.

SL: Sorry but, the fact that I interview you may take you to jail?

YS: Of course!

SL: I do not have the feeling that this worries you that much, since you are giving me this interview, in full day light, in the lobby of a hotel in the heart of Old Havana.

YS: I am not worried. This law states that any person that denounces the violations of human rights in Cuba cooperates with the economic sanctions, since Washington justifies the imposition of the sanctions against Cuba because of the violation of human rights.

SL: If I’m not wrong, Law 88 was passed in 1996 as a response to the Helms-Burton Law and particularly punishes those people who collaborate with the implementation of the American law in Cuba, for instance, by providing Washington information about foreign investors in Cuba so that they be taken to American courts. As far as I know, nobody has been condemned for that so far. Let’s talk about freedom of expression. You have certain freedom to speak through your blog. You are being interviewed this afternoon in a hotel. Don´t you notice any contradiction between your affirming that there is no freedom of expression in Cuba and the reality about your writings and activities, which show the opposite?

YS: Yes, but you can not see my blog in Cuba since it has been blocked.

SL: I can assure you that I visited it this morning before we had this interview, from this very hotel.

YS: It is possible, but most of the time it is blocked. Any way, at present, I can’t have the smallest space in the Cuban press, while I am a moderate person, no space in radio or television.

SL: However, you can publish whatever you want on your blog, can’t you?

YS: But I can not publish a single word on the Cuban press.

SL: In France, which is a democratic country, wide sectors of the population have no access to the media because most media outlets belong to private economic or financial groups.

YS: Yes, but it is different.

SL: Were you threatened because of your activities? Have you ever been threatened with prison for what you write about?

YS: No direct prison threats, but they do not allow me to travel abroad. I am currently invited to a Congress on the Spanish Language, in Chile; I did all proceedings, but they do not allow me to go.

SL: Have you received any explanation?

YS: None, but I´d like to put something straight. US sanctions against Cuba are atrocious. It is a failed policy. I have said this many times, but they do not publish it because it bothers them that I have this opinion, which is contrary to the archetype of any opposition member.


SL: So you oppose the economic sanctions.

YS: Absolutely, and I say this in every interview. Some weeks ago, I sent a letter to the US Senate requesting that the American citizens be allowed to travel to Cuba. It is atrocious to see how they do not allow American citizens to visit Cuba, just like the Cuban government prohibits me to travel out of my country.

SL: What’s your opinion on the hopes sparked by the election of Obama, who promised a policy change towards Cuba, but has disappointed so many people?

YS: He came to power without the support of the Miami-based fundamentalist lobby, which backed the other candidate. On my part, I have already given my statement against the sanctions.

SL: This fundamentalist lobby opposes the lifting of the sanctions.

YS: You can discuss with them and expose my criteria, but I would not say they are enemies of the homeland. I don’t think so.

SL: A group of them participated in the invasion against their own country in 1961, at the orders of the CIA. Several of them are involved in terrorist actions against Cuba.  

YS: The Cuban exiles have the right to think and take decisions. I favor their right to vote. Here, the Cuban exile has been very much stigmatized.

SL: Do you mean the “historic” exile or the ones that have emigrated for economic reasons?

YS: Actually, I oppose all extremes. But these persons who are in favor of the economic sanctions are not anti-Cuba people. Just think that they are defending Cuba according to their own criteria.

SL: Perhaps, but the economic sanctions affect the most vulnerable sectors of the Cuban population and not the leaders. Then, it is difficult to favor the sanctions and intend to defend the wellbeing of the Cuban people at the same time.  

YS: That is their opinion. That’s it.

SL: The are not naive. They know that the Cuban people are suffering because of the sanctions.

YS: They are simply different. They think they will be able to change the regime by imposing sanctions. In any case, I think that the blockade has been the perfect argument for the Cuban government to keep its intolerance, control and internal repression.

SL: Economic sanctions have an impact. Or do you think that the sanctions are a mere excuse for Havana?

YS: They are an excuse leading to repression.

SL: Do they affect the country from the economic point of view, according to you? Or is it only a secondary issue?

YS: The real problem lies on the lack of productivity in Cuba. If they lift the sanctions tomorrow, I doubt that the result will show.  

SL: In this case, why doesn’t the United States lift the sanctions and eliminate the excuse for the Cuban government? That way, it would reveal that economic difficulties are the result of domestic policy. If Washington insists that much on the sanctions, despite their anachronistic character, despite the opposition staged by the large majority of the international community, 187 countries in 2009, despite the rejection by a majority of US public opinion, despite the rejection by the world of business, there must be a reason, don’t you think?

YS: Simply because Obama is not the dictator in the United States and he can not eliminate the sanctions.

SL: He can not eliminate them totally because an agreement by the Congress is necessary; however, he can soften them considerably, what he has not done so far, since except for the elimination of the restrictions imposed by Bush in 2004, almost nothing has changed.

YS: No, that is not true, because he has also allowed US telecommunication companies to do business with Cuba.


SL: You have to admit that this is all very little when we know that Obama promised a new approach of Cuba. Let’s go back to your personal case. How can you explain this landslide of prizes, as well as your international success?

YS: I can’t say much except expressing my gratitude. Any prize implies a dose of subjectivity on the part of the jury. Any prize can be questioned. For instance, many Latin American writers deserved the Nobel Literature Prize better than Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

SL: Do you say that because you think he is not as talented or due to his position favoring the Cuban Revolution? You do not deny his talent as a writer, or do you?

YS: It is my opinion, but I will not say that he took the prize and then accuse him of being an agent of the Swedish government.

SL: He obtained the prize for his literary work, while you have been rewarded for your political position against the government. That is the impression we have.

YS: Let’s talk about the Ortega and Gasset Prize granted by El Pais newspaper, which sparks more controversy. I won it in the “Internet” category. Some say that other journalists have not yet won the prize, but I am a blogger and a pioneer in this field. I consider myself a figure in the Internet. The Ortega y Gasset jury is made up of highly prestigious personalities and I would not say they took part of any conspiracy against Cuba.

SL: But you can’t deny that the El Pais newspaper maintains a very hostile editorial line towards Cuba. And some people think that the prize, which includes 15,000 Euros, was a way to reward your writings against the government.

YS: People think what they want to think. I think my work was rewarded. My blog has 10 million visits monthly. It is a cyclone.

However, that is not what an internationally recognized site measuring traffic says; a site like Alexa.com, of Amazon, which at the same time can not be taken as suspicious in terms of partiality in favor of alternative media sites from Cuba, Venezuela and Spain. A simple comparison of Yoani´s blog (blue line) to other media outlets confirms that Generacion Y has much less traffic than the other websites to which it is compared, which have made their traffic public, below 10 million accesses monthly. Does Generacion Y alter its stats? I would seem it does. Another example, the Website with the largest traffic in the United States and one with the largest traffic in the world is The New York Times, which reports 17 million accesses every month.

SL: How do manage to pay the cost of the management of such a large proportion?

YS: A friend of mine in Germany would deal with that, because the site was hosted in Germany. It has been hosted in Spain for over a year now and I got and 18-month free management thanks to The Bob´s Prize.

SL: And how about the 18-language translation?

YS: They are friends and admirers who do it voluntarily and for free.

A Conversation with Cuban Blogger Yoani Sanchez (II)

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