Dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, who has won world fame with her Generación Y webpage, spoke March 15 at a conference entitled "The Revolution Recodified: Digital Culture and the Public Sphere in Cuba," at New York University. One lone protester stood across the street from the auditorium overlooking Washington Square Park, while the hall was filled with hundreds, all eagerly engaged. Sánchez opened with the assertion that digital technology is "bringing about a democratic, pluralistic Cuba," opening a new space in a country where "the press is a private monopoly of the Communist Party." She said a "slow, timid process of opening dissent from below" is underway, emphasizing that it is neither a reform imposed by foreign designs, nor the "formal limited reform" being advanced by the regime. She explicitly repudiated notions of militant opposition, saying she rejects the "cycle of violent revolution."
While Sánchez said Internet access is extremely limited in Cuba compared to the "hyper-connected" United States, she was inspired by Web-organized citizen relief efforts after the eastern part of the island was devastated by Hurricane Sandy last year, with people delivering rice and supplies to stricken communities. (Although she didn't mention it, this is a clear parallel to Occupy Sandy in New York City.) Sánchez credited guarantees for her safety after her November 2009 abduction in Havana (which she blogged about here) to online protests (although whether from within or without Cuba was unclear). She acknowledged that electronic media is also being used by the authorities to "divide and discredit" the opposition.
Sánchez was quick to disavow any leadership role, saying she doesn't want to "replicate the error of Fidel Castro and pretend to speak for all Cubans with a single voice." She urged support for Cuban journalists and bloggers who have gone on hunger strike to demand freedom of speech and unrestricted Internet access, such as Guillermo Fariñas Hernández (see Reporters Without Borders) and Calixto Ramón Martínez Arias—who remains detained and on hunger strike now, according to Amnesty International. And she recommended the English-language Translating Cuba website as a means to follow such struggles.
In the question and answer session, Sánchez was met with sometimes tearful gratitude (especially from one young third-generation Cuban-American)—but also challenges from both the left and the right. One antagonist on the left asked how she could accept an invitation to speak in the same country that has imprisoned Bradley Manning. She replied that she was invited by academics, not the US government, and that whatever Manning is suffering does not justify abuses in Cuba. She offered a similar response when a challenger pointed out the good works of Cuban doctors in post-earthquake Haiti. Sánchez said the Cuban government should show "solidarity with its own citizens" by allowing free speech. She added at this point that she had been threatened with sexual assault when she was abducted.
When this blogger was called on, I pointed out that many progressives in the US see any movement for democratic space in Cuba only as an imperialist plot to recolonize the island—yet the threat of such imperial designs is real. How does Sánchez view this dilemma? And does she believe that a democratic opening must also mean a transition to capitalism?
Sánchez replied that the "David and Goliath" image is "used by the regime," adding, "I have been hearing since my youth that any dissent is fabricated by the CIA." She decried that foreign progressives "use Cubans as a spearhead against Yankee imperialism. But we are not just a nation on the south flank of Florida. We have our own voice and identity."
"The Cuban question is not one of socialism versus capitalism," Sánchez said. "We already have capitalism, although it is run by communists. It is savage capitalism, without the right to strike, with the trade unions completely captive. You could say it is a family capitalism, practically a feudal capitalism."
Sánchez also faced challengers from the right—including angry chanting that briefly disrupted her presentation at one point. One more articulate such challenger demanded to know why Sánchez opposes the US embargo of Cuba. She replied that the embargo only serves the regime. "If people complain there is no bread, they just say, 'It's the embargo's fault.'"
And Sánchez insisted that she doesn't have a "political program"—she is just seeking "a change in Cuba that comes from within Cuba."
A later presentation featured two films by Ricardo Figueredo Oliva, including Despertar, a documentary about the Havana underground rap outfit Escuadrón Patriota that was censored at the 11th Festival of Young Directors in Havana in 2011; and Operación Alfa, a satirical "mockumentary" about Cold War intrigues over Cuba. Audience members discussed other such independent artistic endeavors in Cuba, such as the political graffiti artist "El Sexto"—a report last year in Havana Times notes that his works are quickly painted over by authorities, but he persists despite arrests and harassment. His name—the Sixth—is apparently a reference (snide or presumptuous) to the Cuban Five, heroes of the regime imprisoned in the US as spies.