Saturday, May 7, 2011

La Flaca on PRI's The World (with excerpt from her new book)

Cuba's blogosphere is relatively small and its most famous practitioner is Yoani Sacnhez. She says her blog "Generation Y" is not an act of dissent, but is more like a daily diary to describe what it is like to live in Cuba. The World's Carol Hills has more.

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Full story and book excerpt below...

By Carol Hills
There are many adjectives to describe Cuba. "Wired" is not one of them. As of 2009, only about 12 percent of the island's population of 11 million had any access to the Internet. That's because Cuba's government wants to control the message.
So it comes as some annoyance to Cuban officials that one of the few independent bloggers in its midst, Yoani Sanchez, has gained an international following. And now a book of her blog entries, "Havana Real," has just been published in the United States.
Yoani Sanchez did not intend to be a rebel. She started blogging as a form of therapy, a way to deal with the frustrations of daily life in Cuba: the long lines, the ever-diminishing rations, her obsession with the food she cannot have, and the constant challenge of keeping ancient appliances working.
Sanchez says she did not start her blog as an act of defiance. "My blog is chronicle of daily life and reality," she said. "And in Cuba the reality is profoundly defiant, very much in opposition to the official truth put out by the government."
That official truth includes government-choreographed parades and demonstrations every May Day or on the anniversary of Cuban victories like the failed US Bay of Pigs invasion. Then there's the predictable government-scripted newscasts trumpeting Cuba's athletes or boasting a bumper potato crop.

Generation Y

The name of Sanchez' blog is Generation Y, for people with names that begin with the letter Y, like her first name. It's common among Cubans born around the same time Sanchez was in 1975. Her generation spent their adolescence in late 1980s and 1990s, during the so-called "Special Period," which was hardly special. Those were the very lean years following the collapse of the Soviet Union when Cuba was left on its own. Everything was scarce. Sanchez remembers nothing available in the Cuban peso stores, constant low-grade hunger pangs, and being sent from Havana to a rural schools to help grow crops.
And then there was the voice, those five- and six-hour-long televised speeches of the only leader she's ever known her whole life: the unelected Fidel Castro.
By 2002, Yoani had had enough. Like thousands of other Cubans before her, she decided to leave. The decision came after a particular incident.
"It was Fidel Castro's birthday and when I turned on the radio in the morning, the voice said, 'Today is the birthday of the nation.' And that day I decided I didn't want to keep living in a country where they confuse the nation with one man, the country with an ideology and our identity with a political party."
Yoani spent two years in Switzerland but being away from family was too difficult. She returned in 2004.
"My friends still think I was crazy to come back," she said. "But life has shown me I was right. I wanted to come back, but not to the same condition of silence and of wearing a mask. I wanted to come back to speak out and that is what I am doing, even if I have to pay the consequences of doing that."


The consequences have been harsh. Her phone is tapped, her friends harassed, her teenage son taunted. Plain-clothes Cuban security police are stationed outside her apartment at all times and follow her wherever she goes.
One day Yoani decided to turn the tables. She started following them. She walked right up to them and took photos — which are on her blog — and asked them questions. One said, "Are you crazy?" Another time, she was arrested, beaten and thrown in jail. She recorded the whole thing on her cell phone and that's on her blog, too.
But Yoani says it's all worth it because what started out four years ago as one Cuban citizen expressing her views has turned into a community, which she helped train. "We are a diverse, plural movement of alternative Cuban bloggers with a range of voices." She says they're not a political party and that in fact they're all quite different from one another. "But we have something in common and that is the desire to express our voices," she said.
Yoani continues to express her own voice — in any way she can. She makes a living by writing for foreign publications. She then uses the hard currency to pay for time on the Internet at tourist hotels where she emails her blog entries to the Canadians who manage it.
Asked what she'd tell Raul Castro to change if she ever got a meeting with him, she would tell him to de-criminalize differences of opinion. "When we stop punishing free expression in this country, everything will start to change."
Yoani Sanchez is now a cause celeb in civil society and digital media circles. Jimmy Carter met with her recently in Havana — at his request. And she's regularly invited overseas to accept awards and speak at conferences. But Cuban authorities have turned down her requests to travel — 14 times. She's got a 15th one pending — to visit the US to promote her book but she's not optimistic.

An excerpt from the Yoani Sanchez's book "Havana Real"

Given a ration card at birth, and entering adolescence during Cuba's "Special Period," my thoughts are obsessed with food. I have to control myself not to let my desires run away with me, or to show the naked hunger that I see in the faces of my friends.
I look at them heading to the market with their plastic shopping bags, often returning with them just as empty as when they left. I, too, have a shopping bag, but I keep it folded in my pocket, so I don't look like I've been devoured by the machinery of the waiting line, the search for food, the gossip about whether the chicken has arrived at the market. . . In the end, I have the same obsession with getting food, but I try not to show it too much.

New status symbol

I live equidistant from two agricultural markets. In one, the sellers are either farmers or members of a cooperative farm, the other is run by the Youth Labor Army. In the first, there is nearly every fruit, vegetable, and other food, even pork, that one could want. In the second, the State market, there is rarely more than sweet potatoes, peppers, onions and green papayas. When there is some kind of meat, lines are longer. But the fundamental difference between the two markets is not variety but price—so much so that my neighbors call the farmers' market "the market of the rich" and the Youth Labor Army's market the "market of the poor."
The truth is, to serve a fairly balanced meal you have to go to both. First, you must inspect the plentiful stands in the large "market of the rich." Then you must review the capricious offerings and dubious quality in the "market of the poor."
Sometimes, overcome by desire and nostalgia, I buy a pineapple in the "market of the rich." But I take care to bring a cloth shopping bag to hide this queen of the fruits, this obscene symbol of status, from the jealous glances of others.

When I watch TV. . .

This week we are having anti-television therapy in our house. We started gradually, and now we only turn on the "smug little fatty" without the volume. This does something extremely interesting. Before our eyes pass images so predictable that our imaginations add voices and sound. If there is a seeded field, inside my head I hear a well-known commentator announcing over-achievement in potato production. If we see images of people in white coats, my mind immediately hears the speech about Cuban doctors who offer their services in Bolivia or Venezuela.
When watching on mute, however, I never hear anything resembling actual conversations that I hear daily on the street. Our small screen shows us "what should have been" or, even worse, "what we must think we are." So, the commentator in all of us never says, "Prices are sky-high," "In my polyclinic we have only seventeen doctors because all the rest have left on a mission," "If you don't steal from your workplace you can't live," or "Where are the damned potatoes that never come?"
What I see on television bears so little resemblance to my life that I have come to think it is my life that isn't real; that the sad faces on the street are actors who deserve Oscars; that the hundreds of problems I navigate just to feed myself, get transportation, and simply exist are only lines in a dramatic script; that the truth, so adamant are they about it, must be what they tell me on the National Television News and the Roundtable talk show.

The gift of invisibility

For years I boasted that I could become "invisible." Because at any moment, I could immediately go undetected and escape from complicated situations. Wrapped in this "Harry Potter" cloak, I eluded the Union of Communist Youth, because—incredibly enough considering Cuba's ideological extremism in the 1980s—no one asked me if I'd like to join.
I was also invisible to any position of responsibility that required an unblemished record. Thus, I avoided, with hardly anyone noticing, until today, the almost obligatory enrollment in the Federation of Cuban Women; I simply played the old trick of having an identity card for one address but living in another. I also got around membership in a union. And I even managed to sidestep the "University is for Revolutionaries," as I was lucky enough to study at the School of Letters, during a time of relaxed bureaucracy due to the severe conditions of the Special Period.1
However, the hiding trick no longer works. So, I have "pointed myself out" with an act of extreme exhibitionism: Writing this blog. My friend told me the golden rule he learned in a conversation with "the boys of the apparatus." He said: "You can sign your own name to anything you think and write, but you aren't allowed to publish any of those things, particularly if you have signed them."
So, inspired by my friend's story, I got a little carried away and put my picture up on this blog. Although I appreciate the advice of those who have written in asking me to please use a pseudonym and to take my photo down from the site, I should tell you all that this is part of my "anti-invisibility" therapy.

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