The Cuban blogger and the ‘Big Bad Wolf’
By Benjamin Willis and Maria Isabel Alfonso
Yoani Sanchez’ long-awaited arrival to the United States has been
heralded as a victory for the opposition in Cuba and an example
of how citizen journalists, armed with social media, can bring about
democratic change in authoritarian societies. However, a closer look
at the circumstances of her international journey and the difference
of the receptions she has had so far in the United States and the rest
of the world generates far more questions than it does answers.
Yoani’s meteoric rise as “award-wining” blogger has drawn as much
suspicion as it has admiration. Her blog, Generación Y, has been
championed by some members of the Cuban exile community and by
certain opportunistic academic and journalistic circles because of her
constant criticism of the Cuban government and its control over
freedom of expression and assembly. Her confrontational discourse
and blunt condemnation of Cuba’s official line is “red meat” for a
great part of the exile community while her call for freedom of
expression is an easy bandwagon for liberals to jump onto.
However, not all of the historic exile community is in favor of her
statements. The most recalcitrant faction has strenuously
disapproved of the comments she has made from the beginning
of her journey.
An historical understanding of Cuba’s reality in general, and its
current and past relationship with the United States in particular,
has led several intellectuals, journalists, and common citizens to
question her motives and her resources. Hardly ever before has
somebody with so little experience and output garnered so many
international accolades so fast. The fact that so many of these
awards come from countries that have actively pursued policies
of usurping Cuban sovereignty only adds to the intrigue of
Salim Lamrani published “40 questions for Yoani Sanchez on
her World Tour” in Opera Mundi on February 19th and many
of them are exactly the type of queries that one must ask if one
is to understand how Yoani could create so much of an
international presence from a country that she repeatedly
claims has such limited access to the internet. Here are some
of the questions posed by Lamrani:
13. How can your blog accept Paypal, a payment system not
available to any island resident because of economic sanctions
that affect, among other things, e-commerce?
16. How are you able to register your domain through the U.S.
company GoDaddy when this is formally forbidden under
current economic sanctions?
17. Your blog is available in 18 languages including; English,
French, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, Russian,
Slovenian, Polish, Chinese, Japanese, Lithuanian, Czech,
Bulgarian, Dutch, Finnish, Korean and Greek. No other Web
site in the world, not even the sites of important international
agencies, such as the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, OECD
or the European Union offers this degree of linguistic support.
Not even the U.S. State Department or the CIA offers this
degree of access to non-English speakers. Who finances
18. How is it possible that the site that hosts your blog offers
bandwidth 60 times greater than the Internet access service
Cuba offers to its users?
24. In 2011, you published 400 messages per month.
The price of sending one SMS message from Cuba is
$1.25. So, you spent $7,000 in one year of Twitter use.
Who pays for this?
When asked about this list during her visit to Columbia
University’s School of Journalism she joked that when
she was in Brazil the list had grown to fifty questions and that
she had already answered all of them. These questions though
are not just for Yoani to brush off but are rhetorical questions
that thinking people ought to ask when looking at her website
and the production methods of “Team Yoani”. Indeed, the
first stop on her 80-day Phineas Fogg-like trip produced
plenty of questions and Yoani’s answers belied the fact
that maybe she wasn’t exactly “ready for primetime.”
Upon her arrival in Brazil, Yoani was greeted by the
stark reality that many global citizens do not agree with
her narrative. She was challenged by Brazilian journalists,
students, and other citizens about her description of
Cuban reality and her answers to three questions in
particular caused her to backtrack almost immediately.
When asked about the U.S. embargo against Cuba, Yoani
stated unequivocally that it was an interventionist policy and
was a justification for the failings of the Cuban government.
Most importantly she emphasized that this policy of economic
strangulation was a “relic of the Cold War” and needed to
be abandoned as soon as possible (“Ya!”). She also called
upon the closing of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Not the
detention center that has brought so much infamy to the
United States government and has challenged our notion of
due process, but the actual base which is a violation of Cuban
sovereignty. Lastly, she called for the release of the Cuban
operatives known as the Cuban Five arguing that the Cuban
government has spent an unnecessary portion of its budget to
campaign for their release.
When confronted by Miami Cubans who were incensed by
such commentary Yoani began to backpedal by saying that
her comments about the Cuban Five were “ironic” and that
she believes that they are not innocent. This rationalization
poses a problem for the legitimacy of her position.
For example, now that she has arrived in the United States
her position towards the embargo and Guantanamo has
been mitigated to a milquetoast generalization that there
should be a “dialogue” about these issues. Why is she
advocating for dialogue now instead of demanding for
the termination of unilateral sanctions as she did in Brazil?
Why does she not also decry the interventionist nature of
USAID programs that are specifically aimed at
“regime change” in Cuba? Why are these questions not
being asked in New York, or more pointedly, why aren’t
the institutions and academics not letting them be asked?
The “guardians” at NYU and Columbia have shown a
tendency to “cherry-pick” the questions directed towards
Yoani. Why, in what is supposedly the freest nation on
earth, is this happening? There have been protests and
outbursts in her meetings but no direct challenge has been
allowed that would put her in a position of explaining her
vacillating views on such important topics.
Now, she has expounded on her desire to establish an
independent online newspaper upon her return to the island.
On the surface, this idea seems laudable and is far overdue
to empower civil society in Cuba. But if one stops and
ruminates upon what the basic necessities for setting up an
organization like this entails then several more questions arise
that must be added to the already long list for Yoani.
One person in New York held up a sign that read
“Press isn’t free, It’s just cheap.” We are in an age where
almost every “newspaper” on the planet is struggling to
survive and where hegemonic corporate ownership of
the airwaves, webpages, and what’s left of print media is
almost complete. The few independent news sources
remaining rely heavily on donations and subscriptions
from their supporters and consumers. Also major funding
comes from federal grants. Even Wikileaks and
Counterpunch depend on donations. There is nothing
wrong with this type of support but in the case of Cuba
there simply isn’t the financial resources for this type of
publication to operate with domestic funds. Most likely,
she won’t receive any help from the Cuban government.
So, in other words, the idea of an independent news
source in Cuba, by default, has to be funded by foreign
investment. Therefore, from the inception of such a project,
“independent” is a questionable qualifier. Donations are
a legitimate source of income for such an enterprise as
long as they don’t come with strings attached.
Is Yoani so independently wealthy from the monetary
awards that she is going around collecting on this trip
that she can bankroll such an operation? The regulations
of the U.S. embargo wouldn’t allow corporate control
from the U.S. and would seriously deter a foreign
corporation from backing the digital publication
because of the extraterritorial ramifications of the
In an ironic twist of fate, will she have to depend on
absolute communism for such a newspaper to succeed?
Will her employees and associates work full time for free
in order to bring such an ambitious project to fruition?
Only in communist Cuba could that happen.
This past Tuesday Yoani was invited to Washington D.C.
to meet with members of Congress and speak at the Cato
Institute, where she again reiterated the need to end the
embargo. But instead of making the obvious case that
the embargo was a determent to the development of her
people, she called it an “excuse” and stated at the Cato
Institutue that: “I would love to see how the official
propaganda apparatus would function without this
big bad wolf. I doubt that it could.”
The reference to the “big bad wolf” may remind the
reader of the fact that he was not the fictional wolf in
the tale of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” but a dangerous
menace who repeatedly came to destroy the homes and
lives of the three little pigs. That is exactly what the
embargo has done. It has destroyed the lives, homes,
and infrastructure of the Cuban nation while mockingly
espousing that it fosters “democracy” and is intended to
“help” those it harms.
If this cynical reasoning is what it takes to dismantle the
embargo, then more power to her. The embargo may be
a crutch for the Cuban government to lean upon but it
also has had very real effects on the island’s populace
and Yoani can’t claim to be a spokesperson for her
people if she can’t articulate that very obvious fact.
Despite her tepid argument for lifting the embargo, she
was more than pleased to have met with the very members
of the Cuban-American faction of the House that have
done everything in their power to continue that policy,
who were more than happy to fawn over her in return.
Their visceral hate for the Cuban government is enough
for them to overlook the fact that they disagree about the
“effectiveness” of the embargo. Will Yoani demand that
the United States lift the embargo and stop financing
regime change operations that put ordinary Cuban citizens
in peril for the remainder of her trip? Will she call on
president Obama to remove Cuba from the State
Sponsors of Terrorism list while in the U.S.?
In April she is scheduled to be in Miami where a tribute
will be paid to her work. She will be presented with a
medal and will speak at the questionably named Torre
de la Libertad (Liberty Tower). Will she exercise her
freedom of speech and tell an audience that will include
the most hardcore anti-Castro Cuban-Americans that the
embargo is an interventionist policy and has to be lifted Ya!,
that the Cuban Five be liberated, and that the U.S. Naval
Base in Guantanamo be shut down and the land that it
occupies given back to Cuba? Will she speak out against
the historical oppression of diversity of thought within that
same community towards notable figures such as the recently
deceased Francisco Aruca, a victim of bomb threats and
other heinous violence and character assassination?
Will she denounce the violence that has been perpetrated
by the radical factions within Miami’s exile community
such as the bombing of Cubana flight 455 in 1976 and
the other blatant acts of terrorism that have been linked
to such vile characters as Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada
Carriles? Will she ask Marco Rubio if he was serious when
he compared Cuba to a zoo?
Will she plead for a Miami that allows pluralism and
freedom of expression with the same conviction that she
does in Cuba? Or, will she be a victim of her own
Benjamin Willis is a musician. Maria Isabel Alfonso, PhD.
is Associate Professor at St. Joseph’s College in New
York. They are married and raising their nine-month old
son in Queens on malanga, Los Van Van, and baseball.
They are founding members of CAFE, Cuban Americans
for Engagement. They can be reached at