Many years ago in Havana, my teacher asked a room full of first-graders to describe what freedom meant to us. Our classroom was under observation that morning and I assume — although I do not remember — that we had previously discussed how best to answer this question correctly. Having taken the initiative to also ask my mother’s opinion earlier in the week, I raised my hand and spoke with the kind of ease that children feel in public only when armed with the certainty of a parent-given answer, “There are many kinds of freedom. Political freedom is when people can elect their president.”
An odd silence slithered into the room through the open windows and an expression of mild panic colored every adult face. I perceived that something had gone wrong and that I had caused it; quickly, instinctively, I manipulated my original statement by adding, “… like we do in Cuba.” At the age of six, I had experienced my first moment of auto-correction and self-censorship, of political mimicry and doublespeak.
I left Havana for a foreign land soon thereafter, saved from having to endure further painful lessons about my own reality, spared from growing up battling ever-creeping cognitive dissonance, and prevented from witnessing how the duplicity necessary for survival turned to widespread apathy among my peers.
Recently, years after that morning, I met Yoani Sánchez and Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo — two renowned dissident bloggers from Cuba — on their tour through the United States. I saw them on a handful of occasions in New York City and am preparing for an eventful week ahead as Yoani Sánchez visits Miami: an address at the iconic Freedom Tower and a lecture at Florida International University on April 1, and her first-ever TweetUp gathering on April 3. The kind of welcome South Florida will give Yoani remains to be seen, but I expect it will be a predominantly warm one.
The composed and low-maintenance blogger resonates with a younger generation of Cuban-Americans and Cuban immigrants largely because she is an open book. She speaks earnestly and beautifully on her blog, Generación Y, capturing the joys and trials of the quotidian in Havana. With prose and the internet for a weapon and shield, she does not shy away from reprimands, though questions, or protests, and appears genuinely humbled by the role the world has assigned her as loudspeaker of "the Cuban truth."
The format of Yoani’s communications is essentially millennial — blogs, tweets, Instagram photos — and she frequently references the merits of technology in helping to change Cuba. During her recent visit to New York, she referred to technology as a bridge between Cuban and American shores, a toolkit for connections and conversations inside the island, and a chance for Cubans to dialogue among themselves and beyond their borders. While speaking at Columbia University, she joked that, eventually, a statue should be built in Havana in the shape of a USB.
If this emphasis on technology seems exaggerated, consider that Cuba has an internet penetration rate of two percent and flash drives and cell phones are the primary methods for information, videos, and news to propagate.
There are only 120 or so active Twitter feeds coming from the island, but they have already served as 140-character flashlights into the elusive fog of Cuban reality — drawing attention from organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders, not to mention other bloggers and young Cuban Americans. To a generation accustomed and often addicted to technology and the visibility it provides, Yoani and her message are instantly consumable and relatable.
Perhaps more interestingly, Yoani has also managed to partly bridge generational differences in the Cuban-American community, giving her current visit to Miami another compelling angle. She appears to have done so largely by arduously defending the benefits of plurality, often emphasizing the preservation of diverse narratives among the Cuban dissident community and enumerating the many obstacles to meaningful tolerance and official avenues for discourse on the island. In turn, her insistence has served as an acute reminder: our own heterogeneity of opinion on Cuba or U.S.-Cuba policy should be neither lambasted nor dismissed.
For the older generations of Cubans in the U.S., curiosity about Yoani seems to also surge from a tacit awakening at the threshold of new possibilities. For many, associations with Cuba carry legitimate pains and sadness, deep regrets and incorrigible disappointments. But they also harbor a deep nostalgia for the Cuba that was lost, as well as anger and shame for the economic, cultural, and social landslide they perceive to have occurred over the last five decades.
Against this backdrop Yoani stands in incredible contrast; she is impressively erudite, educated, witty, and cultured, a woman who thinks and analyzes, questions and seeks. She is essentially immersed in the Cuban question and simultaneously able to engage with varied audiences and perspectives around the globe. In the face of the Cuban government’s largest export — a communist utopian myth about enviable health care, education, and equality — Yoani Sánchez negates the fiction of the state by documenting the reality of man.
In doing just that, narrating her own truth, she has infused the ongoing conversation among older Cubans with a focus on what is to come, instead of what has perished.
It will be interesting to see what reception Yoani encounters in Miami from her critics. On a recent panel discussion at The New School, chaos erupted when several audience members engaged in a coordinated effort to disrupt Yoani’s participation in the conference. Instead of seeking a role in the conversation, they clamored about conspiracy theories, ironically violating the same principle that allowed them to do so by asking Yoani to be silent. The moderator spoke firmly into a microphone – they had the right to speak and she would let them exercise it for a few minutes before security escorted them out. It was an uncomfortable moment, but it was the correct stand to take.
Twenty years after my original lesson, this is what freedom means to me — respect for the other, tolerance of your antipode.
Later that day, in the lobby, one of the protesters asked how to access the internet in the building. The sizable part of me that had been irritated earlier toyed with the desire to smirk insouciantly, “Oh, we are doing a Cuba simulation so there is no internet access today, sorry!” But, I thought about the long journey — mine, Yoani’s — from a classroom in Havana to an auditorium in New York City, took a deep breath, and gave her the WiFi password.
Natalia Martinez is the Director of Communications for Roots of Hope. The views expressed in this piece are her own.