In Cuba, the Voice of a Blog Generation

By Larry Rohter for the New York Times. Follow link below for original article.

Like any other first-time author, Yoani Sánchez was looking forward to receiving copies of her book, “Cuba Libre,” after it was published last year. But when the package sent from Buenos Aires by her publisher arrived in Havana, the Cuban customs service impounded the parcel and, after she complained, sent her a notice explaining its action.

“The content of the book entitled ‘Free Cuba’ transgresses against the general interests of the nation, in that it argues that certain political and economic changes are necessary in Cuba in order for its citizens to enjoy greater material well-being and attain personal fulfillment,” stated the document, which Ms. Sánchez posted on her Web site. Such positions “are extremes totally contrary to the principles of our society.”

Outside her homeland, though, Ms. Sánchez’s writing is free of such censorship, and she has emerged as an important new voice, both literary and political. Published in the United States in May under the title “Havana Real” (Melville House), her book draws on the same collection of sketches of daily life in Cuba — a dreary, enervating routine of food shortages, transportation troubles and narrowed opportunity — that she has been posting on her Web site, Generation Y (, since 2007.

“This country is so saturated with contaminated, corrupted political discourse, with empty pamphleteering, that I wanted to explore other areas,” Ms. Sánchez, 35, said last month in a telephone interview from Havana, interrupted several times when the connection broke down. “I write about my interior life, the intimate sphere. It’s the sentiments of one person but sums up the reality of many people and shows just how sick this society is.”

Globally, Ms. Sánchez’s blog, whose name refers to the Russian-sounding names beginning with “Y” that many Cubans her age were given at the height of their nation’s dependency on the Soviet Union, is available in a score of languages and gets up to 14 million visits a month. Within Cuba, though, the dictatorship of Fidel and Raúl Castro has from the start sought to silence her and prevent other Cubans from reading what she calls her “little vignettes of reality.”

Ms. Sánchez will not, for example, take a book tour to promote “Havana Real” because she is prohibited from leaving Cuba. “We Cubans are like small children,” she has written, “who need Father’s permission to leave the house.” But she has sought to evade that restriction through videotaped virtual book readings, smuggled out of Cuba on flash drives, in which she explains her situation and reads sketches from her book. She has used similar subterfuges just to post her blog.

That stubborn cat-and-mouse battle, along with the forceful nature of her writing, have made Ms. Sánchez a potent symbol of resistance to five decades of totalitarian Communist rule. Former president Jimmy Carter met with her during a visit to Havana this year, President Obama did an online interview for her blog in late 2009, and in 2008 Time magazine, praising her “charming but pugnacious slice-of-life portraits of life in Cuba,” put her on its list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

“The logic of events has made her a kind of leader, perceived by people as giving voice to all the discontent of an entire generation,” said José Manuel Prieto, the exiled Cuban novelist and former visiting scholar at the New York Public Library. “She is not a news agency, so she circulates the population’s feelings rather than journalistic scoops. But it bothers those in power that she has challenged their monopoly on information and offers a different reading of the country’s reality.”

The Castro dictatorship has responded to her challenge by doubling down. In the state-controlled media, Ms. Sánchez is often accused of conducting a “cyberwar” against the government, and Fidel Castro has singled her work out for criticism, calling her the leader of a group of “special envoys of neo-colonialism, sent to undermine” his rule.

By training Ms. Sánchez is a philologist and once worked at a publishing house specializing in children’s books. But the start of her political problems can be traced to her thesis at the University of Havana, “Words Under Pressure: A Study of the Literature of Dictatorship in Latin America,” which was seen as containing veiled criticisms of Fidel Castro’s rule and praised writers she admires but who have had work banned, like the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.

Her political profile sometimes obscures Ms. Sánchez’s prose style and connection to Latin American and other literary traditions, say those familiar with her work. “She’s a very gifted writer, and she’s in a zone, like Federer playing at his best, able to choose what kind of shot she wants to make,” said Oscar Hijuelos, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. “She has a novelistic sensibility, but I am particularly touched by the down-to-earthiness of her portraiture, her reporting from the front lines of daily life in Cuba. She has some very interesting chops that any writer would admire.”

Ms. Sánchez seems particularly drawn to the essaylike genre known as the crónica, or chronicle, which she has helped bring into the 21st century by putting it online in compressed form. “With her focus on the quotidian, she is very much a part of that tradition,” said Enrique Del Risco, who left Cuba in 1995 and now teaches contemporary Latin American literature at New York University “It’s precisely that grounding in the domestic and personal plane that allows her to show how exhausting and crushing daily life can be.”

Recently Ms. Sánchez completed a second book, a manual whose title translates as “Wordpress: A Blog for Speaking to the World.” A new fiber-optic cable connecting Cuba with South America has just been laid, and when it begins fully operating later this summer, it is likely to increase opportunities not just for her, but for other dissident bloggers and writers, many of whom have attended the seminars she conducted that led to the writing of the second book.

“It’s interesting that we’re talking not about a bearded 80-year-old man, but a sharp, fearless, skinny 35-year-old mother,” said Ted Henken, an expert on Cuba and the Internet who teaches at the City University of New York and visited Ms. Sánchez in April. “That’s new, and in some ways, by spreading the virus of blogging and tweeting to others, she has displaced Che and Fidel among young, progressive people.”

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