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By David Adams
MIAMI (Reuters) - Cuba's best-known dissident, journalist Yoani Sanchez, received a hero's welcome on Monday from the Cuban-American exile community in Miami, her latest stop in an 80-day tour of more than a dozen countries.
It was the largest and most politically unified reception in at least a decade for a dissident from the island by Miami's Cuban-American exile community, which has often clashed with opposition figures in Cuba over political strategy.
With many leaders of Miami's Cuban-exile community in attendance, Sanchez was introduced as "an authentic defender and heroine" of human rights in Cuba by Eduardo Padron, the president of Miami Dade College, which hosted the event.
She was greeted by about 1,000 invitees with a standing ovation accompanied by shouts of "Freedom! Freedom!" as she took the stage at Miami's iconic Freedom Tower, a one-time processing centre in the 1960s for Cuban refugees.
Seemingly surprised by the warmth and size of the reception, she smiled and flashed the V for victory sign in response, before receiving the keys to the city of Miami.
Sanchez, a slender 37-year-old Havana resident with striking waist-length hair, has incurred the wrath of Cuba's government for constantly criticizing its communist system in her "Generation Y" blog and using Twitter to denounce repression.
The blog has won several top international journalism prizes and is translated into 20 languages, while her Twitter account has nearly 500,000 followers. Few of these though are in Cuba, where the government severely restricts the Internet.
In a prepared speech, Sanchez described in often poignant terms her empathy with the pain felt by many Cuban exiles who have left the island over the last half century following the 1959 revolution that swept Fidel Castro to power.
Sanchez blamed the Castro government for dividing the country and called for unity between exiles and Cubans still living on the island.
"That's why I am here today with you so that nobody again can divide us," she said to roars of approval. "Without you (exiles) our country would be incomplete, like someone missing an amputated limb," she added.
CUBA'S BERLIN WALL
Sanchez compared Cuba to Germany before the Berlin Wall was brought down in 1990. Unlike the Berlin wall, Cuba's was "not made of concrete but of lies," she said, to another standing ovation.
Despite her sharp attacks on Cuba's one-party rule, she plans to return to Cuba in May where she said she hopes to dedicate the rest of her life to practicing and teaching journalism.
Sanchez defended her highly publicized criticism of the longstanding U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, saying it provided the Cuban government with an excuse for tough living conditions on the island under communist rule.
"There are much more important things (than the embargo)," she said. "The (Cuban) government has exaggerated its importance," she added, saying different opinions about the embargo among opponents of the Cuban government were not a reason for division.
Unlike other dissidents, who have been received with suspicion in Miami, Sanchez appears to have won the exile community over with her charm and wit, as well as her straight-talking blog.
"No one has been more effective in denouncing what's going on in Cuba and the myths of the Cuban regime," said Carlos Alberto Montaner, a prominent Cuban exile politician and journalist.
"I don't know of any dissident from the island who has been this warmly received," said Felice Gorordo, co-founder of Roots of Hope, a group of young, Cuban American professionals and university students. "She has the ability to speak to the pain of the exiles and to the daily struggles of life in Cuba."
REFORM IN CUBA
Sanchez's case is viewed as a test of the Cuban government's commitment to free travel under reforms announced late last year that require only a passport, renewed every two years, to leave the country.
It is the first time Cuban authorities have allowed Sanchez to leave the island since 2004, when she returned from a two-year stay in Switzerland and began launching a string of digital publications.
Cuba's leaders consider dissidents traitorous mercenaries in the employ of the United States and other enemies. Official bloggers regularly charge that Sanchez's international renown has been stage-managed by Western intelligence services.
Asked on Monday how she has been able to finance her trip crisscrossing the Atlantic several times between the United States, Europe and Latin America, Sanchez praised the generosity of friends and universities that have invited her to speak.
"The Cuban government says I am a millionaire. It's true. I have millions of friends," she said.
Sanchez is in Miami this week for a string of public appearances at local universities and a family reunion with her sister, a pharmacist, and brother-in-law, as well as her niece, whom she has not seen since they left Cuba two years ago.
She arrived in Miami after stops in Washington and New York that followed visits to Brazil and Mexico. She leaves for Peru on Thursday before returning to Europe, including stops in Germany.
(Reporting by David Adams; Editing by David Brunnstrom)