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They came from all over to hear her speak. Old Cuban ladies with wrinkled faces and pristine makeup. Young students with iPhones and digital cameras. Men and women who fled Cuba decades ago and just last year, on makeshift rafts and planes.
When Cuban dissident and blogger Yoani Sanchez entered the room to speak Monday, dressed simply in white, they all stood up in applause and the politics that divide Cubans, even here in Miami, temporarily disappeared.
"In the Cuba that so many of us dream of, there is no need to clarify what type of Cuban you are," she said. "We'll be just Cubans. Cubans, period."
The crowd of several hundred stood on their feet, chanted "Freedom!" and applauded. Sanchez, a Cuban mother and wife who turned to blogging just five years ago, has gained a following and accolades worldwide for her candid descriptions of modern life in Cuba on her blog Generation Y. In 2008, she was named one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World" by Time magazine. She is currently on an international tour that has taken her to three continents after being allowed to leave Cuba for the first time in nearly a decade.
She went to Brazil, where boisterous protesters backing the Cuban government called her a "mercenary" financed by the CIA and even tugged at her hair. She incited controversy when, in an ironic tone, she suggested the U.S. should let five Cuban men convicted in 2001 of attempting to infiltrate military installations in South Florida free because of all the money Cuba could save and spend on more important matters than campaigning for their release.
She has met with young Cuban-Americans born in the U.S. with dreams of a homeland they have known only in photographs and stories. And she has shaken hands with some of the most powerful politicians in Washington, while calling on the U.S. to end its longstanding embargo against the communist island.
But the most anticipated stop of her 80-day tour has been Miami, the heart of the exile community. When she arrived last Thursday, one of Sanchez's first stops was to La Ermita de la Caridad, a shrine to our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba's patron saint. She walked along a stretch of Miami's shoreline she called the city's "Malecon," a reference to Havana's coastal boulevard.
After spending the weekend catching up with her sister, brother-in-law and niece, Sanchez made her first public appearance. The site was aptly chosen: Miami's Freedom Tower, a golden yellow Mediterranean style building where thousands of Cubans fleeing the 1959 communist revolution were processed, given food and connected with social services. A line of men and women who did not have tickets but hoped to still get in stretched down the block.
Among them were sisters Magaly Consuegra, 65, and Maria Santa Cruz, 74. "This is a historical building for us," said Consuegra, who remembered standing in a line in that same spot, when she first arrived five decades ago. "I admire her so much because she had the courage that so many Cubans don't have."
Consuegra came when she was 15 and sometimes, she regrets that she did not stay or go back, like Sanchez has vowed to do. There are an estimated 1 million Cubans in exile in the U.S., most in Miami, almost one-tenth the size of the island's population.
Enormous box trucks drove by repeatedly, the words, "Welcome Yoani Sanchez" stretching along the side. Others held signs calling for Raul Castro to step down as president and for the years of communist rule to end.
Just one small group of about a dozen exiles held a protest, demonstrating against Sanchez's position against the embargo and her comments on the Cuban spies. But they dispersed before the event began as a few rain clouds rolled in.
Sanchez told the story of leaving Berlin on a train the first time she left Cuba years ago. She struck up a conversation with a young man who asked her, "You're from Cuba? From the Cuba of Fidel or from the Cuba of Miami?"
"My face turned red, I forgot all of the little German I knew and I answered him in my best Central Havana Spanish, `Chico, I'm from the Cuba of Jose Marti,"' Sanchez said, referring to Cuba's most famous national hero and poet.
"That ended our brief conversation," Sanchez said. "But for the rest of my life, that conversation stayed in my mind. I've asked myself many times what led that Berliner and so many other people in the world to see Cubans inside and outside the island as two separate worlds, two irreconcilable worlds."
While she is widely read outside her country, within Cuba she is less well known and has been publicly chastized by the government. She said she was standing there, before exiles, "to make sure that no one, ever again, can divide us between one type of Cuban or another."
"Without you our country would be incomplete, as if someone had amputated its limbs," she said. Sanchez lived in Switzerland in 2002, but soon decided to return, believing she was better off with her family and vowing to live in Cuba freely. Since starting her blog in 2007, she had tried to leave dozens of times to accept prizes and speak at universities, but was consistently denied an exit permit. In October, Cuba eliminated the permit that had been required of islanders for five decades and she was allowed to leave.
Cuban authorities can still deny travel in cases of defense and "national security," and some dissidents face restrictions. Her visit has been seen as a test of the new law, one of the most significant reforms Castro has made in his ongoing revision of the economy, government and society.
Before she left the Freedom Tower, she was bestowed with keys to the city of Miami, perhaps the only Cuban still living on the island to receive such an honor. And in a display of the unity she'd just spoken on, people in the audience commented how it seemed to be the first time they could recall where Cubans from so many different generations, who had arrived at different times, and had different opinions on the embargo were all under one roof, applauding the same speech.
Alejandro Barreras, who runs a blog in Miami called On Two Shores, said he sat behind a man who had yelled at him not so long ago for attending a concert of Carlos Varela, a Cuban folk musician. Now they were sitting one behind the other, equally captivated by Sanchez's words. "You can't help but feel hopeful," he said.