On November 7, 2009, the Western media devoted ample space to the Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez. The news from Havana about the dispute between the dissident and Cuban authorities circled the world and overshadowed the rest of the news.1
Sanchez recounted her mishap in detail on her blog and in the press. In doing so, she declared that she had been detained together with three friends by “three burly strangers” during an “afternoon full of blows, shouting and insults.”2
She later explained her story, which resembles a real ordeal:
The ‘aggressors’ themselves called for a police car that took my other two companions away [. . .] I refused to get in the shiny Geely and [. . .] received a barrage of blows, shoves, they carried me with my head down and tried to shove me into the car. I held onto the door, blows on the knuckles, I managed to grab a piece of paper that one of them had in his pocket and I stuck it in my mouth. Another flurry of punches so that I would give the document back to them.
Orlando was already inside, immobilized by a karate hold that kept his head glued to the floor. One of them put his knee in my chest and the other, from the front seat, hit me in the kidneys and punched me in the head so that I would open my mouth and spit out the paper. For a moment I felt as though I would never get out of that car. ‘This is it, Yoani,’ ‘The clowning around is over,’ said the one seated in front who was pulling my hair. In the back seat a rare spectacle ensued: my legs in the air, my face reddening from the pressure and my body in pain, while Orlando was pinned by a professional thug on the other side. I just managed to grab his testicles, through his pants, in an act of desperation. I sunk in my fingernails, imagining that he was going to continue to smash my chest until the very last breath. ‘Kill me already,’ I yelled, with my last remaining breath, and the one in the front seat told the younger one, ‘Let her breathe.’
I was listening to Orlando panting and the blows continued to rain down upon us, I considered opening the door and jumping out, but there was no handle to open from the inside. We were at their mercy and hearing the voice of Orlando gave me encouragement. Later he told me that it was the same for him with my choking words . . . which told him, ‘Yoani is still alive’. They left us in pain on a street in Timba, a woman approached, ‘What’s happened?’ . . . ‘A kidnapping’, I managed to say. We cried in each other’s arms in the middle of the sidewalk, I was thinking about Teo, for God’s sake how will I explain all these bruises to him. How am I going to tell him that he lives in a country where this happens, how am I going to look at him and tell him that his mother, for writing a blog and putting her views into kilobytes, has been brutalized on a public street. How will I describe for him the despotic faces of those who forced us into that car, their evident pleasure as they beat us, lifting my skirt and dragging me half naked to the car?3
The United States — where 34-year-old Cuban citizen Yosvanis Valle had been executed 48 hours earlier, bringing the number of executions in 2009 to 424 — declared its “deep concern”, through State Department spokesman Ian Kelly. “We continue to be concerned about the personal health and access to medical care of Yoani Sanchez.”5
Yoani Sanchez’s words are terrifying and immediately arouse the reader’s sympathy and compassion towards the victim. Nevertheless, it is essential to point out some contradictions that cast a shadow over the credibility of this tale.
The first surprise for journalists as expressed by the BBC’s Havana correspondent Fernando Ravsberg: Despite the “blows and shoving,” the “blows to the knuckles,” the new “flurry of punches,” the “knee in [her] chest,” the “blows to the kidneys and [. . .] the head,” “hair” pulled, the “face reddened by the pressure and body aching,” the “blows [that] continued to rain down” and “all these bruises” that the Cuban blogger described,6 Ravsberg noted that Sanchez “has no bruises, marks or scars.”7 Images from the U.S. channel CNN, which also interviewed the blogger, confirmed the words of the British journalist. In addition, the CNN correspondent took oratorical precautions and emphasized Sanchez’s “apparent” suffering (using a crutch to move around).8 According to Agence France Presse, which related the story with caution, clarifying that this is Sanchez’s version, and using the title “Cuba: the Blogger Yoani Sanchez Says She Was Beaten and Briefly Detained,” the blogger “was not injured.”9
Questioned about this by the BBC, Yoani Sanchez tried to explain this contradiction. According to her, the marks and bruises on her face and body really existed, but had disappeared. “Throughout the whole weekend I had a swollen cheekbone and eyebrow.” All the marks had disappeared by Monday morning with the arrival of the first foreign journalist. However, bruises and “several marks” remained, she said, but . . . “particularly on the buttocks, unfortunately I cannot show them,” she explained.10
Sanchez did not specify the reasons why she did not photograph the bruises and marks right after the incident, when they were visible, which would have provided irrefutable evidence of police violence against her. With regard to the hair pulled out, which is not visible at all in the photos and videos, her explanation is simple: “I lost a lot of hair but with this thick head of hair you can’t tell.”11
In her blog and in a radio interview, Sanchez spoke of “the worst sort of Sicilian gang-style kidnapping,” giving the impression that she was detained for several hours.12 But in her interview with the BBC, when the journalist insisted and asked for clarification, the blogger confessed that in fact the incident lasted in all “25 minutes.” Furthermore, Sanchez asserts that the detention occurred “in broad daylight, in front of a bus stop full of people.” Nevertheless, the Western press failed to find a single witness, not even anonymous, to confirm the words of the blogger and thereby certify the veracity of her statements.13 Similarly, none of the people accompanying Yoani Sanchez were willing to respond to requests for interviews with the Western media, directing them to the blogger in charge of speaking on behalf of all of them.
Beyond all this, it seems surprising and illogical that the authorities in Havana would have decided to publicly mistreat such a media-savvy dissident as Yoani Sanchez, knowing for absolute certainty that such an act would unleash an immediate international scandal. A priori, there are other much more efficient and discreet ways to intimidate opponents.
Finally, Sanchez sinks into new contradictions when she tries to clarify some vague areas of her testimony. Thus, she explained that her resistance was due to the fact that the plain-clothed agents “did not show anything identifying them as authorities, I would have acted differently had they been in uniform. I asked them to get a police officer, they called and a police car arrived that took the other two girls and left me and Orlando in the hands of these others.”14 However, in her blog, she says the police arrived at the beginning of the situation, but that would not have prevented her from resisting what seems more and more to be an identity check carried out by plainclothes police officers rather than a public lynching.
In short, there is no evidence corroborating the words of Yoani Sanchez, no other available testimony, not even of the people who accompanied her. Therefore we have to rely only on the blogger’s version, which is full of contradictions. Given these factors, it is impossible not to doubt the statements of the famous Cuban blogger.
It is necessary to make a comparison. The Western press granted, in just 72 hours, more space to Yoani Sanchez and her incident with the authorities than to all the crimes committed (more than a hundred murders, a similar number of cases of disappearances, and countless acts of torture and violence) by the military dictatorship led by the coup leader Roberto Micheletti since June 27, 2009. Decidedly, Sanchez is not a simple critical blogger as she pretends.
The Yoani Sanchez Phenomenon
Yoani Maria Sanchez Cordero is a “Habanera” born in 1975, apparently having graduated in Philology in the year 2000, according to her blog. There remains doubt about this fact in that during her stay in Switzerland two years later, when she enrolled with the consular authorities, she declared a “pre-university” level education, as shown by the records of the consulate of the Republic of Cuba in Bern.15 So, after working in the field of publishing and giving courses in Spanish to tourists, she decided to leave her homeland with her son. On August 26, 2002, after marrying a German named Karl G., she emigrated to Switzerland with a “foreign trip permit” valid for eleven months, in the face of the “disenchantment and economic suffocation” that prevailed in Cuba.16
Interestingly, we learn that after fleeing “an immense prison with ideological walls,”17 to use the words she uses to refer to the country of her birth, she decided two years later during the summer 2004 to leave the Swiss paradise, one of the richest nations on earth, to return to the “leaky boat on the verge of sinking” as she metaphorically describes the island.18 Faced with this new contradiction, Sanchez explains that she chose to return home — where the “cries of the despot” reign19 and where “beings from the shadows, like vampires, feed on our human happiness and inoculate us with fear by means of blows, threats, blackmail”20 — “for family reasons and against the advice of acquaintances and friends.”21
When reading Yoani Sanchez’s blog, where the Cuban reality is described in such an apocalyptic and tragic manner, one gets the impression that purgatory is, by comparison, a seaside resort and that only the sweltering heat of the antechamber of hell can provide an idea as to the daily life of Cubans. No positive aspect of Cuban society is portrayed. Only aberrations, injustices, contradictions, and difficulties are presented. Consequently, the reader struggles to understand how a young Cuban woman decided to leave wealthy Switzerland to return to live in what she likens to Dante’s inferno where “pockets were emptying, frustrations growing, and fear proliferating.”22 In her blog, the comments of her foreign supporters abound in respect to this: “I do not understand your return. Why didn’t you give your son a better future?” and “Dear friend, I would like to know why you decided to return to Cuba.”23
By contrast, some of her compatriots who live abroad, disappointed by the western lifestyle, have also expressed their desire to return to live in Cuba: “I will return.” “I have lived in Miami for 7 years [. . .] and sometimes I question whether the physical exile has been was worth it.” “I need my people [. . .] Someday I will return home with my German husband, another fool who wants to apply for residency there.” “Why did you go back? . . . Loneliness, nostalgia, longing? [Then, referring to the western world] Strange faces, people sad and fed-up with the rest of mankind without knowing why, equally corrupt politicians and many gray days? No need to explain anything. As of 14 years ago there are no suns on my map of time.” “I again sent [the information] to my dad who lives outside of Cuba, and who has plans to return.”24
One of two possibilities — either Yoani was not in her right mind in deciding to leave the Pearl of Europe and return to Cuba, or life on the island is not as dramatic as the picture she paints.
In a posting on her blog in July 2007, Yoani recounted in detail the story of her return to Cuba. “Three years ago [. . .] in Zurich [. . .] I decided to go home and remain in my country”, she said, emphasizing that it was “a simple story of an immigrant’s return to her homeland.” “We bought round trip tickets” for Cuba. So Sanchez decided to stay in her country and not return to Switzerland. “My friends thought I was joking, my mother refused to accept that her daughter no longer lived in the Switzerland of chocolate and milk.” On August 12, 2004, Sanchez showed up at the provincial immigration office in Havana to explain her case. “What a tremendous shock when they said to me, go to the end of the line of ‘the returnees’ [. . .] That is how I encountered all of a sudden other “crazies” like me, each with their own horrifying story of return.”25
Indeed, Sanchez’s case is far from being an isolated case, as illustrated by this story and the comments left on her blog. More and more Cubans who chose to emigrate, after facing many difficulties in adapting and discovering that the western “El Dorado“ does not glitter as much as they had imagined and that the privileges they had enjoyed at home do not exist anywhere else, decide to return to live in Cuba.
However, Yoani Sanchez fails to give the real reasons that led her to return to Cuba, beyond the “family reasons” that she evoked (reasons that her mother apparently did not share, given her surprise). The Cuban authorities granted her favorable treatment on humanitarian grounds, allowing her to recover her permanent resident status in Cuba, even though she had been out of the country for more than 11 months.
In reality, the stay in Switzerland was far from as idyllic as she had anticipated. Sanchez discovered a western lifestyle completely different from what she was used to in Cuba, where, despite the daily difficulties and vicissitudes, all citizens have a relatively balanced diet despite the ration card and the hardships, access to free health care and education, free culture and entertainment, a house and an atmosphere of safety (the island’s crime rate is very low). Cuba is perhaps the only country in the world where you can live without working (which is not always something positive). In Switzerland, Sanchez had enormous difficulties finding work and living decently and so, in desperation, decided to return home and explain the reasons why to the authorities. According to them, Sanchez had begged, crying to the immigration services to be granted an exceptional waiver “to revoke her immigration status,” and they granted it.26
Yoani Sanchez has decided to carefully conceal this fact.
In April 2007, Yoani Sanchez decided to join the world of the Cuban opposition and founded her blog, Generation Y. Forgetting the magnanimity of the authorities towards her when she returned to Cuba in 2004, she thus became a staunch critic of the government in Havana. Her criticisms are harsh, unnuanced, one-sided. She presents an apocalyptic view of the Cuban reality and accuses the authorities of being responsible for all its ills. She never evokes, not even for an instant, the unique geopolitical circumstances in which Cuba has found itself since 1959. There are hundreds of blogs in Cuba. A number of them complain incisively aberrations in Cuban society. But their approach is much more nuanced and the information less partisan. Nevertheless the Western media has chosen the black-and-white blog of Sanchez.27
According to this blogger, in Cuba, “the process, the system, the expectations, the illusions have shipwrecked. A complete shipwreck,” before concluding with this lapidary metaphor: “The ship has sunk.” To her, it is clear that Cuba must change course and change governments: it is necessary to “change the helmsman and the entire crew”28 in order to develop “sui generis capitalism.”29
Sanchez is an astute person who has understood perfectly well that she could prosper quickly with this type of discourse so valued by the Western press. She has worked out a tacit agreement with the communications and information transnationals. For the Western media to grant one the status of “independent blogger,” and to enjoy some media space, it is essential to speak out against the system and the government and to demand radical change, more specifically the return to private enterprise capitalism, and not to content oneself with just denouncing some aberrations in the system.
How can the assertion of collusion between Sanchez and the media powers be corroborated? In light of the facts. Just a few weeks after the birth of her blog, the Western press launched an extraordinary campaign to promote it, presenting her as the blogger who has dared to challenge the regime and restrictions on freedom of expression. Once again, the Western media are not afraid of their own contradictions. On the one hand, they continue to repeat that it is absolutely impossible for any Cuban to undertake a heterodox discourse on the island and that making any criticism about the government or even straying from the official line is prohibited under penalty of prison. On the other hand, they praise the ingenuity of Yoani Sanchez whose main activity is to harshly criticize government policy with a freedom of tone that would be the envy of opponents throughout the world, without the authorities harassing her.30
Thus, after barely a year of existence, while there are dozens of blogs older and no less interesting than Sanchez’s, the Cuban blogger won the Ortega y Gasset Prize for Journalism, worth 15,000 euros, on April 4, 2008, awarded by the Spanish daily El Pais. Customarily, this award is given to prestigious journalists or writers who have long literary careers. This is the first time a person with the profile of Sanchez has received it.31 Likewise, the Cuban blogger was chosen among the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine (2008), in company with George W. Bush, Hu Jintao, and the Dalai Lama.32 Her blog was included in the list of 25 best blogs in the world by CNN and Time magazine (2008) and also won the Spanish Bitacoras.com prize as well as The Bob’s (2008).33 On 30 November 2008, the Spanish daily El Pais included her in its list of the 100 most influential Latin American personalities of the year (a list which features neither Fidel Castro nor Raúl Castro).34 Foreign Policy magazine went further in December 2008, by including her among the 10 leading scholars of the year.35 The Mexican magazine Gato Pardo did the same in 2008.36 The prestigious Columbia University of the U.S. awarded her the Maria Moors Cabot Prize.37 And the list is long.38
However, Yoani Sanchez candidly acknowledges: “Time magazine has put me together with ninety-nine famous people in its list of influential people of 2008. Me, who has never stepped onto a stage or a podium, and whose own neighbors do not know if ‘Yoani’ is written with an “h” in the middle or an ‘s’ at the end. (. . .) Now I have just enough vanity to imagine that the others on the list may be wondering, who is this unknown Cuban blogger on the list with us?”39 Unwittingly, Sanchez created a giant contradiction for Time magazine: How can a blogger unknown to her own neighbors be included among the 100 most influential people in the world? Here, it is undeniable that the U.S. magazine employed political and ideological criteria in including Sanchez, which casts a shadow over the credibility of the classification. This applies to the other awards as well.
The Living Conditions of Yoani Sanchez
The umpteenth contradiction. The Western press, in recounting the words of Sanchez, never stops repeating that Cubans have no internet access, without an explanation as to how this blogger can write daily at her blog from Cuba. Great was the surprise of the 200 international journalists accredited to the International Tourism Fair in Cuba when, on Wednesday, May 6, 2009, they spotted Yoani Sanchez calmly installed in the foyer of the most luxurious tourist establishment on the island, the Hotel Nacional, accessing the Internet, when the price of the connection is prohibitive even for a foreign tourist.40
Two questions inevitably arise: How can Yoani Sanchez connect to the Internet in Cuba when the Western press keeps repeating that there is not access to it? Where does the money come from that allows her to live a lifestyle that no other Cuban can afford, when officially she has no other source of income?
In 2009, the U.S. Treasury Department ordered the closure of more than eighty websites related to Cuba that promoted trade and thus violated U.S. legislation on economic sanctions. Interestingly, Yoani Sanchez’s site was not closed even though it proposes the purchase of her book in Italian, in fact, through Paypal, a system that no Cubans living in Cuba can use because of the economic sanctions (which prohibit, among other things, electronic commerce). Similarly, Sanchez has a copyright for her blog © 2009 Generation Y – All Rights Reserved. No other Cuban blogger can do so under the laws of the embargo. What explains this unique situation?41
Other questions also require answers. Who is behind Sanchez’s desdecuba.net website whose server is hosted in Germany by the company Cronos AG Regensburg (which also hosts far-right websites) and is registered under the name Josef Biechele? It was also discovered that Sanchez registered her domain name via the U.S. company GoDaddy, whose main characteristic is anonymity. The Pentagon also uses it to register sites with all the necessary discretion. How can Yoani Sanchez, a Cuban blogger living in Cuba, register her site with a U.S. company when the economic sanctions legislation formally prohibits it?42
Moreover, Yoani Sanchez’s site Generation Y is extremely sophisticated, with portals to Facebook and Twitter. It also receives 14 million visits per month and is the only one available in no less than 18 languages (English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, Russian, Slovenian, Polish, Chinese, Japanese, Lithuanian, Czech, Bulgarian, Dutch, Finnish, Hungarian, Korean, Greek). No other site in the world, including those of major international institutions such as the UN, World Bank, IMF, OECD, and the European Union, has as many language versions available. Not even the U.S. State Department web site or the CIA has such a variety.43
Another surprising detail. The site hosting the blog of Sanchez has a bandwidth 60 times higher than Cuba has for all its Internet users! Other questions inevitably arise about it: Who manages these pages in 18 languages? Who pays the administrators? How much? Who pays for the translators who work daily on Sanchez’s site? How much? Furthermore, the management of a flow of more than 14 million visitors monthly is extremely expensive. Who pays for that?44
Yoani Sanchez has a perfect right to speak freely and issue virulent criticisms of the authorities in Havana — she does not hesitate to do so — about the difficult daily realities of Cuba. She cannot be nor should she be criticized for that. Instead, she commits a serious intellectual imposture when she presents herself as a mere blogger, saying that her sole purpose is to honestly perform her duty as a citizen.
Her meticulous viciousness in systematically obscuring reality, evoking only the negative aspects, de-contextualizing the problems, methodically ignoring the geopolitical environment in which Cuba finds itself, particularly in its relationship with the U.S. and the relentless imposition of economic sanctions which affect every Cuban’s life, resorting to lies as was easily verified in the case of the alleged “aggression,” all tend to discredit her. Her role first and foremost is to woo a certain audience resolutely opposed to the Cuban revolutionary process and to faithfully misrepresent the Cuban reality in its complexity.
Another unique fact: U.S. president Barack Obama responded to an interview with Yoani Sanchez. So as the U.S. sinks deeper and deeper into an unprecedented economic crisis, as the battle over healthcare reform becomes increasingly difficult, as Afghan and Iraq issues continue to heat up, in spite of the highly charged agenda of the presidency, with the extremely sensitive subject of the seven U.S. military bases installed in Colombia having raised continental disapproval, with a coup in Honduras in which Washington is seriously implicated, and with hundreds of requests from around the world for media interviews pending, Barack Obama put all that aside to answer questions from this Cuban blogger.45
In the interview, Sanchez at no time asked for an end to the economic sanctions which affect all sectors of Cuban society starting with the most vulnerable (women, children, and elderly), which represent the main obstacle to development of the country, and which are rejected by the vast majority of the international community (187 countries in the UN vote in October 2009) because of their anachronistic, cruel, and ineffective nature. On the contrary, she takes up exactly the rhetoric of Washington: “The political propaganda tells us that we live in a besieged city, a David versus Goliath and the ‘voracious enemy’ that is about to pounce on us.” The economic sanctions, which she describes as mere “trade restrictions” are “so clumsy and outdated”46 not because they have dramatic consequences for the Cuban population, but because they are “used as justification both for the setbacks in productivity and to repress those who think differently.”47 These are exactly the same arguments raised by the U.S. representative to the United Nations in October 2009 to justify the continued state of siege that Washington has imposed on Cuba since 1960, without explaining why 187 countries in the world have been willing to participate each of the last 18 years in what she calls “political propaganda.”48
In light of these factors, it is impossible that Yoani Sanchez is a simple blogger denouncing the difficulties of a system. Powerful interests are hiding behind the smokescreen that is Generation Y, which represents a formidable weapon in the media war that the United States wages against Cuba. Yoani Sanchez has clearly understood that obedience to the powerful is rewarded handsomely (over $ 100,000 in total).49 She has chosen to join the business of dissent and live the good days in Cuba.
5 “Cuba: les USA indignés par les mauvais traitements infligés à des blogueurs,” Le Monde, 10 November 2009.
6 Sánchez, “Secuestro estilo camorra,” op. cit.
9 Agence France Presse, “Cuba: la blogueuse Yoani Sanchez dit avoir été frappée et brièvement détenue,” 7 November 2009.
10 Ravsberg, “Ataque a bloguera cubana, ¿cambio de política,” op. cit.
12 Yoani Sánchez, “Secuestro estilo camorra,” op. cit.; YouTube, “Entrevista a Yoani Sánchez tras la golpiza que recibió por parte del Gobierno Cubano,” 9 November 2009. Accessed on 15 November 2009.
13 Ravsberg, «Ataque a bloguera cubana, ¿cambio de política», op. cit.
15 Correspondence with His Excellency Mr. Isaac Roberto Torres Barrios, Ambassador of the Republic of Cuba in Bern, November 17, 2009.
17 France 24, “Ce pays est une immense prison avec des murs idéologiques,” 22 October 2009.
21 Sánchez, “Mi perfil,” Generación Y, op. cit.
26 Correspondence with His Excellency Mr. Orlando Requeijo, Ambassador of the Republic of Cuba in Paris, November 18, 2009.
27 “Yoani Sánchez: Hemos naufragado; hace rato que estamos bajo el agua,” Libertad Digital, 12 November 2009.
29 Mauricio Vicent, “Los cambios llegarán a Cuba, pero no a través del guión del Gobierno,” El País, 7 May 2008.
30 Sánchez, Generación Y.
31 El País, “EL PAÍS convoca los Premios Ortega y Gasset de periodismo 2009,” 12 January 2009.
35 Sánchez, “Premios,” op. cit.
38 El País, “Una de las voces críticas del régimen cubano, mejor blog del año,” 28 November 2008.
40 Guillermo Nova, “Bloguera cubana Yoani Sánchez descubierta escribiendo sus artículos desde el wi-fi de hoteles,” Rebelión, 11 May 2009.
41 Norelys Morales Aguilera, “Si los blogs son terapéuticos ¿Quién paga la terapia de Yoani Sánchez?” La República, 13 August 2009.
43 Sánchez, Generación Y.
44 Morales, “Si los blogs son terapéuticos ¿Quién paga la terapia de Yoani Sánchez?” op. cit.
46 Sánchez, “Siete preguntas,” op. cit.
48 Sánchez, “Siete preguntas,” op. cit.
49 Sánchez, “Premios,” op. cit.
Salim Lamrani is a professor at Paris Descartes University and Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée University and journalist specializing in relations between Cuba and the US. He has just published Cuba: Ce que les médias ne vous diront jamais [Cuba: What the Media Will Never Tell You] (Paris: Editions Estrella, 2009). Contact: <email@example.com>. En español: “Las contradicciones de la bloguera cubana Yoani Sánchez.” Translation by David Brookbank.