'Writing my blog was like throwing a bottle into the sea...' Dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez finally given a passport and heads for Brazil

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

For years, dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez was barred from leaving Cuba. Yesterday, the chronicler of life under Castro – and friend of Barack Obama – was allowed to fly to Brazil.  Jose Miguel Calatayud hears her story

When Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez received a call from the country’s Interior Ministry earlier this month, her immediate reaction was one of suspicion. “When the Interior Ministry calls you at home it’s never to give you good news,” she tells The Independent, speaking from her apartment in Havana.

As one of the country’s most vocal internal critics, Ms Sánchez had even more reason for concern. But for once, the 37-year-old writer – whose blog detailing the difficulties of living in the one-party state has attracted hundreds of thousands of fans, including US President Barack Obama – was pleasantly surprised.  The ministry was calling to say her passport was ready to collect. It was a milestone for Ms Sánchez. She would be one of the first Cubans to receive a new passport, paving the way for her to leave the country after almost six years of waiting. Yesterday she got her wish, and was able to fly to Brazil.

Ms Sánchez had been living in Switzerland before deciding to uproot her family to return to her home country in 2004. Her aim was to open a digital magazine for political dissidents, and encourage free speech despite government restrictions. “Then I opened my blog [in April 2007] and I was never again allowed to leave Cuba,” she says. “Ever since I started talking, they stopped me from travelling.”

Cuba clamped down on international travel soon after the 1959 revolution in an attempt to stop a mass exodus of professionals leaving the Caribbean island for the US. But on 14 January, the government finally opened the long-awaited process to apply for a new passport, which – in principle – will make leaving Cuba easier. Before the new passport was launched, Cubans had to apply for a “white card” exit permit, which was usually denied by the authorities, often with no reason given.

“I’d been trying to get the permit to travel for the last five years and I had got 20 negative responses,” says Ms Sánchez. This time, her application was approved, by “the same civil servants who had acted despotically on other occasions and had told me – almost smiling – that I wasn’t allowed to travel”.

Ms Sánchez, a University of Havana philology graduate, began her blog, “Generation Y”, as an honest alternative to both the government’s official propaganda and the stories peddled by its critics. “I could no longer stand the official propaganda – all the lies. Where was the country they promised?” she says. “My mother had been born almost already in this system, I was born within this system, and my son had been born within this system. And it was the feeling of: ‘Well, this never ends’.”

Ms Sánchez says when she began, “writing it was like throwing a bottle in the sea”. She had no idea the blog was attracting a great deal of attention both in Cuba and internationally. Her readers began to email her, teaching her how to use WordPress, which allowed her to open the blog up to comments from readers.

“Everything changed because then it was possible for readers to comment. They took over the comment zone and Generation Y turned into a public square to discuss things,” she says.

As President Obama noted at the time, Ms Sánchez’s writing gave “the world a unique window into the realities of daily life in Cuba”.

By March 2008, Generation Y had become the most read blog in the country, with 1.2 million visits per month, and the government soon responded by blocking access to it from within Cuba. Sánchez circumvented the censorship by emailing her blog posts to volunteers outside Cuba who would publish them, and translate them into English, attracting more than 1,000 online comments for each post.

The government finally gave up the blockage in February 2011. But the fame remained, and continued to affect Ms Sánchez’s life inside the country. “The attention on all the fronts of my life, the public demonisation of my person, my face in the evening news on TV along with the worst kind of adjectives: mercenary, cyber-terrorist, Nato or CIA agent… the worst things you can be called in Cuba… The arrests, the beatings, the arbitrary detentions, the kidnappings, the pressure on my family, on my friends… If I had known [when I began writing], maybe I would not have gone ahead.”

One incident in November 2009 stands out. Ms Sánchez claims that two state security agents forced her and fellow writer Orlando Luis Pardo into a car as they walked to a demonstration. She says she was beaten before they were released in different places.

The Cuban government denied the attack on Ms Sánchez, and another on her husband. It has repeatedly accused her of working under US guidance to undermine the Cuban government, and Cubans who support the government accuse her of inciting to violence and of betraying the revolution.

“[I was afraid] all the time, and not only was I afraid, but what was happening was worse than what I might have expected,” she says.

It was the support of ordinary Cubans that kept her writing, Ms Sánchez says. “Every time I’m out and someone recognises me they tell me very nice things: ‘Resist’, ‘go on’, ‘I’m a reader of yours’. Some tell me: ‘I want to be as brave as you are’.”

“I also understood that if I shut up it would be worse,” Ms Sánchez says. “This visibility and the fact that so many people read [what I wrote] gave me a lot of protection too. Many activists like myself started to realise that, instead of hiding and speaking quietly, it was better to be narrating ourselves.”

The 1959 revolution brought about by Fidel Castro, Ernesto Ché Guevara and others established a one-party state that controlled a socialist economy. They created a system in which every Cuban could get free health care, education and jobs.

As a result, unemployment is extremely low (around two per cent), but so is productivity. Few Cubans manage to make more than the state salary of $20 (£13) a month. As the Cuban saying goes: “Fidel pretends to pay us and we pretend to work.”

Ms Sánchez admits several changes have taken place in Cuba since her childhood – one of which is the opening up of Cuba to foreign tourism. “When we in Cuba suddenly had the chance to talk to someone from Madrid or from Istanbul and hear how life was in their countries – the problems, the benefits – that was a big blow to the official propaganda, which until then had convinced us Cuba was paradise and the outside world was hell.”

Though many tourists from the West enjoy the image of Cuba as a repository of the 1950s and 60s – the classic cars, the faded ornate buildings, the vintage radios – Ms Sánchez finds these things symptomatic of Cuba’s greatest problems: “We didn’t want to turn this country into a museum of the 20th century. It’s been an imposition brought by material limitations and bureaucratic controls. Don’t be content with the stereotype,” she says, as if speaking to tourists headed for Cuba (almost three million visited last year). “Come here and live Cuba, but live it truly, with the rationed market, with a monthly salary of $20, with the bus that doesn’t come, with the policeman who arrests you with no explanation, with the security agent listening to you from the other side of the wall… Live it as what it is, the 20th-century totalitarianism taken into the 21st century.”

The new passport measure is one of a series of reforms to give Cubans more control over their lives, which have been brought in by Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother, who took over as Cuban President in 2008. His government, which employs about 85 per cent of the country’s workforce, said it would start to lay off public workers as limitations on private enterprise became more relaxed, allowing people to start businesses of their own. Importantly, Cubans can also now buy and sell property such as houses and cars.

Ms Sánchez knows she has become a symbol of repression in Cuba, describing it as a “responsibility” that is “very hard to carry”. She is unconvinced that the reforms are a sign of benevolent intentions, or that the government is willing to loosen its grip on the country. For example, though a new passport may make leaving Cuba easier, the application process costs $100, five times the average monthly salary.

“I don’t think these (reforms) are due as much to our leaders’ will as to a whole series of historical and technological circumstances, as well as to the exhaustion of their discourse,” she says.

Ms Sánchez landed in Brazil – the first destination on her world tour – today. She says she hopes she will be able to pick up some of the international awards she has received in person, and finally meet those who help her from a distance. She says she also wants to visit Facebook and Twitter’s headquarters in the US.

It is a story full of promise. But it could be said that the true test of Cuba’s reforms will only come when – as the first prominent critic to do so – Ms Sánchez will attempt to use her return ticket back to Havana.

In her words: Yoani Sanchez 

* “In countries where there is a strict government monopoly on the press, we independent informers are considered by official propaganda to be enemies, traitors... It gives the impression that to expose ourselves by having an informative or opinion-related blog... would be like shooting oneself in the head. However... expressing yourself in cyberspace may be more likely to succeed than doing so in real life.”

* “As expected, there was not a single opponent to the government who managed to enter parliament [in the February 2013 election], no one with different political ideas will become a member of the National Assembly. Not even a single deputy who doesn’t possess the same ideology as the party in power...”

* “... the image of the old Cuban man with a puro [cigar] between his lips is becoming a thing of promotional posters and commercial advertising. Neither a retiree nor an active professional... can afford to buy quality cigars at a price that bears some relation to their legal income.”

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

News
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past