Yoani Sanchez vs. the state

HAVANA, Cuba — In the past two years, Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez has become a potent symbol of opposition to the Castro government, a young woman who sketches out a grim chronicle of life on the communist-run island, calling for greater freedom.

Her blog, Generation Y, claims more than a million visitors per month, and her postings routinely elicit thousands of reader comments. The blog is translated into 15 languages, appearing in English on The Huffington Post website, and Sanchez has won several major awards for her work in the U.S. and Europe.  Last year Time named her one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Now, after a weekend incident in which she said was forced into a car and roughed up by Cuban security agents, Sanchez may emerge as a central figure in the island’s tentative diplomatic thaw with the United States. As Sanchez’s activism increasingly moves from the computer screen to the street, she appears on a collision course with Cuban authorities. If she is arrested or placed on trial for her activities, the Obama administration’s cautious diplomatic overtures toward Cuba could grind to a halt.

To that exent, the next phase of the Cold War-era feud between the U.S. and Cuba may hinge on a distinctly 21st century phenomenon: a 34-year-old blogger with a computer, spotty internet access and a massive global following. Opponents of Cuba policy reform in Washington have already seized on her charges of assault, claiming the Obama administration’s recent attempts to improve relations have failed to bring more tolerance for dissent on the island.

Sanchez couldn’t be reached for comment, but she told the BBC this week that she would not be intimidated or silenced. “The only thing these attacks do is generate more Google hits for my name, and increase the solidarity of the international blogging community,” she said. 

Cuba's blogger movement is small but growing, and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists estimates the island has 100 unapproved blogs, including some written by dissidents, activists, and others government critics. Sanchez's Generation Y is by far the most famous, offering two or three short postings each week in a carefully-crafted, literary style. Her descriptive writing is invariably critical of the island's socialist system, but often uses language that isn't explicitly political, unlike previous generations of dissident writers.

To the Cuban government and its supporters, Sanchez and her blog are a sophisticated but insidious tool in a long propaganda war waged by anti-Castro forces abroad. Despite her international popularity, Sanchez remains virtually unknown among ordinary Cubans, since few have regular internet access and her site is blocked by state-controlled servers. At times Sanchez dictates her blog entries over the phone to supporters abroad, who post them on servers off the island.

The government has not commented on the assault allegations, but according to Sanchez, she and her friends were stopped en route to an anti-violence march last Friday by a group of men she said were plainclothes officers. The men ordered Sanchez into a car, and when she refused they forced her into the backseat, striking her back, legs and buttocks. Sanchez said the men called her a “counterrevolutionary” and warned her she had crossed the line with her activities. She said she was let go after 25 minutes.

Sanchez was not seriously injured in the incident, but said she had a sore back and has been using a crutch to move around. She has continued writing her blog, pushing back this week at critics who she likened to those who would blame a rape victim for wearing a short skirt or walking provocatively. “In the face of these attitudes, the victim feels doubly assaulted,” she wrote.

The incident was the first serious retribution Sanchez has faced for her activities, and condemnation has been raining down on the Cuban government all week — from U.S.-based human rights groups, Democratic and Republican leaders and the Obama administration, which has taken incremental steps in recent months to improve relations with Havana.

“The U.S. government strongly deplores the assault on bloggers Yoani Sanchez, Orlando Luis Pardo, and Claudia Cadelo,” said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly, listing the names of other bloggers who were detained with Sanchez. “We call on the Government of Cuba to ensure the full respect of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all its citizens.”

In recent months, a confrontation with Cuban authorities has been building, as Sanchez made several forays from the virtual world of her blog into real world forms of activism. She has organized blogging workshops, staged small protest actions and wore a blond wig to sneak into a discussion forum on the internet last month, where she delivered a blistering critique of government censorship.

Sanchez’s actions hardly amount to full-fledged street protest or serious political organization. But the Cuban government has responded harshly to organized dissent in the past, especially when Castro opponents on the island develop the kind of international profile Sanchez has.

To some Cuba observers, Sanchez’s trajectory parallels previous crackdowns on Castro government opponents. When Cuban dissidents grew increasingly outspoken and organized earlier this decade, their movement was squashed in a March 2003 roundup. In summary trials, 75 were convicted of working in league with U.S. and foreign diplomats trying undermine the government. Several received sentences of 20 years or more.

Baruch College professor Ted Henken, who studies Cuba’s blogger movement and has interviewed Sanchez, wrote Tuesday that her detention fits a familiar pattern in the long U.S.-Cuba standoff. Whenever relations with the U.S. seem to be on the mend, the process is derailed by an incident in Cuba that provokes an international outcry.

“These cases teach us that Obama should move forward on further engagement and dialogue based not on the good or bad behavior of Havana, but on the interests of the United States and the well being of the Cuban people,” Hencken said. “Conditioning future steps toward a better relationship on actions in Havana only puts the Cuban government, not the U.S. government or the Cuban people, in the driver's seat.”