Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Savaging of Yoani Sánchez: The Reasons Why... (Part 3/3)

My previous post in this three part series, "The Savaging of Yoani Sanchez," described the flood of recent articles in the Cuban press aimed at disqualifying the blogger. Essentially, these articles allege that she is a foreign media phenomenon, completely unknown in Cuba, financed by enemies of the revolution.

While it is clear that Sanchez began with a much greater following abroad than she has so far attained within her own country (kind of like the Buena Vista Social Club, come to think of it), none of her critics care to admit that this fact is due primarily to the government's monopoly on mass media in Cuba. By law and by definition, Cuban mass media is Cuban state media. Remember, the national daily Granma is the "Organo Oficial del Comite Central del Partido Comunista de Cuba" (the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party).

Indeed, up until last week, the state media had steadfastly refused to even mention her by name, knowing perhaps that the wily Cuban public is often skeptical of what it reads in Granma, and may become interested in "un tal Yohanis" exactly because the government has begun to badmouth her. This is also likely the reason that the article that did attempt to savage her, " Yoani Sánchez: la hija de PRISA" (a reprint of an article first published on-line back in January, 2009) appeared only in the weekly, Spanish-language version of Granma Internacional, not in the national daily Granma.

Furthermore, the fact that Sanchez's blog, along with a growing number of the blogs and portals that she is associated with, are "blockaded" by the government and thus inaccessible to the vast majority of the Cuban public did not seem to merit mention by her critics. (Last year on a trip to Cuba I confirmed this when I was unable to access her blog or the portal that houses it, DesdeCuba.com, from a number of Havana hotels).

Instead, with a twisted logic, her critics use the fact she is (still) relatively unknown within Cuba (because of this internal "embargo" on the free flow of information) as "proof" that she is a foreign media construction and, it is insinuated, a foreign agent, whose critiques of Cuba's socialist system serve foreign interests and and are not shared by her fellow Cuban subjects, er, citizens.

Thus, out of overconfidence, naivete, jealousy, or just a lack of understanding of this new generation and their newfangled gadgets, and in their effort to disqualify the blogger, her critics have willfully overlooked or conveniently ignored the real reasons for her substantial success and rapid rise to international influence to date.

So, here I offer my own analysis of "the reasons why"; my “top ten list” of what is really "behind" what her critics have labeled alternately “The Yoani Phenomenon” or more sinisterly “La Operación Yoani.”

1. David vs. Goliath: The laudatory international media frenzy that initially greeted Fidel Castro in the 1950s (with Herbert Matthews of the New York Times - pictured with Castro above [Fildel's the one with the cigar] - describing him as "an overpowering personality" whose "men adored him"; "he has caught the imagination of the youth of Cuba all over the island," "an educated, dedicated fanatic, a man of ideals, courage, and of remarkable qualities of leadership"), is ironically being replayed here with Sánchez and her “revolutionary” blog. Remember, Batista also attempted to censor the Cuban national media preventing them from fueling Castro's rising popularity within the country - necessitating the foreign media's "infiltration" of the country to get the story out. However, Batista was much less adept at completely controlling a national media (which was still then in private hands) than is the current government, of which the national mass media is an official extension.

The American and global public love an underdog and the media (especially the MSM, much-reviled on both the far-left and the far-right) love simplistic stories of heroes and villains. Remember, Time categorized Sanchez under the rubric of "Heroes and Pioneers" when listing her among the "100 Most Influential Persons" back in 2008 - even if she insisted that she preferred the simple title of "citizen." This same "David vs. Goliath" dynamic is part of the reason Castro himself has had such success for so long at generating international support, respect, and admiration for the revolution. Havana has known how to play a convincing David to the U.S.’s even more convincing Goliath for the past 50 years - consistently winning sympathy and support at the UN by focusing attention on the admittedly counterproductive, illegal, and immoral embargo (not to mention "torpe y anacrónica" as Sanchez's own words).

For her part, this 34-year-old, 90-pounds-when-soaking-wet, chica impertinente! has had the same media savvy (now in the internet age) to play up her own role as a young, witty David to the Cuba government’s now doddering, and occasionally vengeful and violent octogenarian Goliath, winning growing levels of international sympathy and support by emphasizing the government's own "internal blockade" against the initiative, independence, creativity, and civic freedoms of the Cuban people. As a result, this David of yesteryear is none-to-happy at being cast as today's Goliath by this young, new, and female David, and is unleashing its potent media arsenal in response.

2. Water in the Desert: For far too long, the Cuban public (both within Cuba and in exile) have had to listen to “los mismos tres gatos” – the historic (elderly, white, male) leaders of the revolution on the one hand, and the traditional (elderly, white, male) exile leadership on the other (not to mention a traditional internal dissident movement who, despite its long-suffering bravery, tend to consider a fax machine a form of new technology). Now, along comes "something completely different" – a child (or grandchild) of the revolution (not a "greedy former landowner attempting to regain lost fortunes") who speaks in a language that others from her generation (both within Cuba and abroad) can readily understand and identify with (even if they do not always agree with).
3. Taleno con cojones: Cubans love pan con mantequilla, pan con croqueta, and pan con bacallao. Well, Sánchez has the good fortune of combining two characteristics that Cubans also love, respect, and admire – she has the Cuban “don de palabra” and, forgive the machista expression, the “cojones de actuar.” In other words, “She’s Got Talent!” and the courage of her convictions to deploy that talent in a consistent, courageous way that has earned the grudging respect even of those who do not always share her politics.
In fact, one of the things that first distinguished her blog from others in Cuba when it was launched in April, 2007, was the fact that she openly placed her name and photo (in the form of her carne de identidad no less) alongside her critical chronicles of daily life. In a society awash in years of fear and distrust, this was indeed brave and has been an example that others have begun to follow. Her talent with the written word is also perfectly matched to the blog as a media platform.
To be effective, blogs need three elements: brevity, frequency, and personality. Even occasional readers of Sanchez's blog will note that her posts, best described as a form of the Spanish genre known as "cronica," are very rarely longer than just three sharply written paragraphs (unlike my own often long-winded and unwieldy blog posts); she updates her blog several times a week; and she has an easily recognizable and consistent writing style that combines a rich description of everyday Cuban reality with an incisive wit, analysis, and often understated political criticism, almost always featuring an evocative photo or video clip from YouTube.
4. Technology: Sanchez's style (described above) and her use of technology are perhaps the two elements of the “Yoani Phenomenon” that cannot be overestimated. We live in an age of a new and, yes, truly “revolutionary” change in communication technology and social networking. This technological revolution is both “news” – that is, it is of interest to a world-wide public who could otherwise care less about Cuba and its internecine, byzantine family squabbles – and fully “present” and “real” to an increasing number of the global population, and especially so to those under 35 (well, maybe 38!, my own age at present). Sanchez has the great advantage of being both young enough to master the use of these new technologies (blogs, YouTube, Twitter, etc.) and mature enough to have something penetrating and original to say when using these new media.
Also, Sanchez is kind of a Davy Crocket of the internet – if “he ‘kilt’ him a bear when he was only three,” as the song goes; we learn on her blog that she ‘bilt’ her very first computer from spare parts back in the Cuba of the early 1990s - en pleno periodo especial! So, it seems that she is not only the best-known blogger in Cuba, but she is also likely the biggest computer nerd and best self-taught hacker among her new and rapidly expanding generation of Cuban bloggers. This trait has allowed her to recently begin moving beyond simply writing her own blog, to participating in a number of independent workshops and outreach programs (see for example itinerarioblogger.com, unaislavirtual.com, and vocescubanas.com, not to mention her group's original portal DesdeCuba.com itself) aimed at promoting blogging and computer literacy among those in Cuba with something to say but no platform with which to say it.

5. El perodismo ciudadano (citizen journalism): Last Friday’s article in Granma Internacional argues that Sanchez was “fabricated to come across as a simple young person alienated from her daily life, and not a politician.” However, the weekly claims she “not only talks of politics” but that she also “engages in politics” through her meetings of independent bloggers. In fact, the thing about Sanchez that is perhaps most annoying to both Cuban authorities and to some anti-government activists is that she openly rejects the label of dissident, counter-revolutionary, oppositionist, and even hero and pioneer, insisting that she is nothing but a citizen.
This strategic positioning allows her to simultaneously distance herself from both the traditional internal dissident movement and the Miami counter-revolution (often easily dismissed in Cuba for their links – both real and imagined – to the U.S. government and the use violence). Calling herself a simple citizen also allows her to reclaim for her fellow Cuban citizens the rights and responsibilities attendant to that designation. In essence, she seems to be saying, “We are citizens, not subjects – and we demand the right to act and be treated as if that were actually true.” How dare those pesky citizens engage in politics. Don’t they know that politics are best left to us politicians!
For example, this is how she describes the concepts of "citizen journalism" and "verbal violence":
"'Citizen journalism' is causing quite a fervor across the world, really shaking the foundations of traditional journalism. Citizen journalists are individuals, without any particular professional training, who live in the epicenter of events. One fine day, they decide to recount how they live and to film, record, and photograph the reality that surrounds them, converting themselves into transmiters of information. In the Cuban case, citizen journalism is especially important given the fact that the government exercizes an information monopoly. Here, a citizen journalist is a person who writes about everything that the official press refuses to mention.
"In the case of 'verbal violence,' this is one of our fundamental premises in the work we do at DesdeCuba. We refuse to use incendiary language, defamation, or harangues, because that only exacerbates the cycle of intolerance that is an obstacle to reasoned debate. Cuba is a very diverse country. You walk out into the street and you not only find a diversity of races but also of opinions. The official press spends all its time trying to make us believe that this is a very monolithic country, that we all think the same, and it does so with a dose of revolutionary violence and ideological aggressiveness that is paralyzing. We have to find a way to put a stop to this never-ending cycle, to this spiral of aggression that is very characteristic of Cuban journalism." (For more on these topics and the related concept of la red ciudadana, or "citizen network" she relies on to translate and post her blog in multiple languages, see portions of my video interview with her here and here).
6. Subjective, partial, and generational (but not dishonest): Both in Cuba and the U.S., it is common to hear bloggers criticized as being biased and lacking in the proper objectivity and professionalism expected of journalists. This criticism is true as far as it goes. However, most bloggers, Sanchez included, do not claim objectivity, and in fact much of their effectiveness is borne out of their very subjectivity and unique perspectives and personalities. Unlike many traditional journalists and most newspapers, news websites, and media institutions who make false claims of being “fair and balanced” (Fox), publishing only what’s “fit to print” (NYT), bloggers are clear to their readers from the start that the news they share is “their news,” much of its value arising from the particular bent, bias, or shtick of the blog or blogger. At the same time, subjectivity and personality are not necessarily synonymous with dishonesty. Readers beware and readers be responsible! Everyone should be entitled to their own opinions and analysis, but not to their own facts.
7. A Critic, Sí; An Ideologue, No: While her critics often try to paint her as a mouthpiece of the “Miami mafia” or “la extrema derecha,” and while she was long suspect among that very group for being a Castro agent, one of the most refreshing things about her and her group of fellow bloggers is their original, sui-generis, and critical analysis of the Cuba that they live in. In other words, they are not ideologues hewing to anyone’s party-line. And it is this characteristic of non-ideological authenticity, more than any other, that has won them a large following among their largely post-ideological generation of Cubans.
8. Grass-roots vs. Astroturf: If Sanchez’s critics would take the time to review the first year of Generacion Y’s existence they will find that, like most other blogs, this one began rather modestly (in terms of its technical sophistication) and attracted relatively little attention or reader comments. In fact, my own post-by-post review of the blog shows that during its first 8 months of existence (April-November, 2007), only one of her 52 posts attracted more than 20 comments with most attracting under 10. This is in great contrast to the hundreds, and eventually thousands of comments her posts began to attract in 2008 and 2009.
In other words, as the blog evolved, its readership grew, and readers increasingly loyal, demanded to become part of the GY conversation. For example, two sequential posts from October 6 ("Arte blogética") and October 13 ("La solidaridad me llega") illustrate this organic, grass-roots phoenomenon clearly. Toward the end of the first post, Sanchez warns her readers not to be surprised if they login in the future to find a "closed for repairs" notice instead of a new post. "I post and I survive, or better yet, I survive because I post," she writes ironically to end the first message. However, after receiving an "avalanche" of encouragement in response to this first post, in the next one, "Solidarity reaches me," she corrects herself, "instead of writting 'I survive because I post,' I will have to write 'I survive because I post and because you read me'."

Moreover, if one reads this particular blogpost carefully, one discovers that during its first six months of existence, GY was not even equipped to receive reader comments, with the comments presumably going directly to Sanchez via e-mail messages (and perhaps added later to the current blog platform after it was technically updated). Sanchez explains this to her readers in the "Solidarity" post from October 13:
"Why can't we add comments to your blog? you ask. That will soon be possilbe, only now if you look closely you will realize that it is not set up on any known platform, neither Wordpress nor Movable Type. Instead, I painstakingly built it letter-by-letter in pure html, because that was the easiest way that I found -from Cuba- to do it. At the end of this month, I am going to do everything over again so that it functions like a true blog with all the normal possibilities."
Thus, in response to reader comments and demands, Sanchez gradually increased her blog’s technical sophistication, adding new “gadgets” and languages every few months – especially as she found more and more volunteers in an ever-expanding global citizen network to translate and manage the various languages in which the blog operates.

Indeed, in e-mail exchanges with the current translator of GY into English, I discovered that his "labor of love" began after he noticed that new posts had suddenly ceased to appear on the English version of the blog. Then, on May 5, 2008, there appeared a GY post, ironically entitled, "Trabajo voluntario," where Sanchez asked for translation help. After waiting a few weeks and seeing that no one else had stepped forward, he simply wrote her in his high-school Spanish and offered to join the team. "You wont believe this, but in the beginning I could barely speak Spanish and I still have never even met Yoani," he told me. "But I figured that with my seven years of French, two of Latin, and those five weeks of Spanish practice I got on vacation in Costa Rica, I could give it a try. I was blown away when she finally wrote me back with a simple message: 'Here's the password. Go for it!'"

If GY is actually a clandestine foreign "astrotruf" construction, and not an authentic grass-roots phenomenon as its critics allege, this gradual, organic growth would not be so evident. And the CIA would have surely given her enough money from the start to launch a blog in multiple languages with all the proper technical bells and whistles!

Indeed, if Generation Y owes anything to a secret government conspiracy or clandestine operation, it is not to the usual foreign suspects (Los Yanquis, Spain, Prisa, Montaner, or La CIA), but ironically to the Cuban government itself. Likely the biggest surge in Generacion Y’s readership came after the Cuban authorities began strategically blocking access to it within Cuba just before its first anniversary in April, 2008. Indeed, March and April mark the first time that reader comments surged beyond 1,000 entries, reaching upwards of 2,000, 3,000, and even 5,000 comments in response to one post in late April. Of course, there’s nothing like a ban to increase the public’s desire for something – that forbidden fruit thing…
9. Projection: In his attempts to explain his own rapid rise to popularity during the election, candidate Barack Obama liked to say that people of good faith often saw him as a blank slate on which they could project their diverse hopes and dreams. I think that Sanchez, her blog, and the larger movement of which she is a part, has a similar function for Cubans (at home and abroad). They have long been waiting for someone with the talento y cojones to say out loud the things that they could not find the words or courage to say themselves. This diverse public includes proud members of the extreme and intransigent right in Miami (like some of the bloggers at Babalublog and the members of the Cuban Liberty Council), while at the same time including much more progressive Democrats like Arturo Lopez Levy in Taiwan/Colorado and Alejanadro Armengol in Miami, Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, and even a few self-defined “socialists,” like Haroldo Dilla in the Dominican Republic and Sam Farber in New York, as well as many, perhaps a silent majority of Cubans on the island.
10. The Young and Restless (and Female): Finally, in a country with a long tradition of being ruled by old men as if it were a military garrison under attack and granting themselves the right to speak for all with the royal “WE,” one has to recognize the unique power of the lone voice of an youthful, individual woman speaking in the first person singular (only one among many), all the while inviting others who may disagree to engage in a civil, respectful, but critical debate for the present and future of their common homeland.
The fact of her female gender in a machista political culture is also key to her success to date as it has led her opponents to cynically underestimate her courage and talent. For perhaps the first two years of her project, many of her critics made veiled assumptions that she had to be just a pretty face, an attractive facade for someone else's thoughts or ideas (her husband, Montaner, Bush, Obama... anyone but her). This is the kind of comment I typically got from my usually well-informed Cuban friends when I asked them about her on a visit to Cuba in July 2008. However, on that same visit, I discovered through a long interview I conducted with her in person that she is fully her own woman, with an extemporaneous verbal eloquence to match her razor sharp written dexterity.

There's an old saying, "Behind every great man, there's a great woman." Well, the reverse of this is indeed true in Sanchez's case, except that her husband Escobar is indeed her #1 collaborator and supporter, not the Svengali that some have tried to made him out to be. And, in this case, he is joined by a growing "worldwide web," a veritable citizen network of other collaborators and supporters.
In the end, it's not about Yoani, but about Cuba. As Sanchez told El Pais' Mario Vicent last year, "Life is not to be found in another place, but in another Cuba."

Note: To navegate to the other entries in thies series, "The Savaging of Yoani Sanchez," you click here on Part I, "Crying Wolf(ette)," Sanchez Responds to Critics, "Classy Lady," Part II, "Of Strawmen...," or Part III, "The Reasons Why..."


  1. This post is seriously long - too long in my opinion - but I tend to agree with most of it. That being so I'll just make a few points. . .

    As a British man the notion that the press has to be balanced is silly. If you are a Conservative you read the Telegraph, a liberal-green-socialist gets the Guardian. So my objection to Sanchez is not her choice of postings, per se.

    I just do not believe that she won the el Pais award, and all the others, because hers was the best blog on the block. It just wasn't and it isn't today. It does not tell us much that we don't already know about Cuba.

    Compare her writing in that first year to that of Riverbend and you can see what I mean. The Iraqi allowed us to see the agony of her country: Yoani Sanchez told us about a lift in her block of flats that did not work. Sanchez did not deserve the €15,000 award; the fact that she got it tends to lead me to believe that it was a bung.

    Secondly, the publicity that she got in her first year was just amazing. Now Cuba has plenty of blogs, the good the bad and the indifferent, so why was she chosen by the heavyweights? I think the answer is simple: she is the man's patsy

  2. Exile,

    You and my wife both agree that I need to learn to write more like a blogger and less like a college professor so I'll take your advice on the length issue and also appreciate that we can agree at least on some of what I wrote.

    As for the prizes - yes they are about more than "who's the best" - they are also symbolic and political - like the one Obama's getting tomorrow.

    But in the very least, the attention and prizes she has gotten have helpped to provoke a flood of new blogs in Cuba - pro, anti, indifferent, etc.

    So to paraphrase Deng Chao-Ping, "Let a Thousand Bloggers Bloom!"

  3. An excellent analysis of the "Yoani" phenomenon. I found it interesting throughout and if it was long, just tell me how else... how else could all the potential reasons be adressed. As for criticism of her blog (or for that matter yours) remember the old maxim uttered by Abraham Lincoln; the one about pleasing people.

    The fact is, most of us are armchair quarterbacks and backseat drivers and we're prone to criticize, specially when we're dealing with people braking new ground. I've heard it all myself: the writing's too long, it's too intellectual, has limited readership, it can be perceived as anti-immigrant, extreme right or extreme left, etc. Frankly, most of such criticism sounds like doublespeak to me. Whether Yoani's blog, your blog or someone else's; you're putting your ideas and dedication out there to stimulate reasoning. Bravo, I say and stay the course.

    Iris Optaciana

  4. Professor, the post is indeed a bit too long for a common readers taste...
    However, I to agree with you on this subject. Reference to foreign enemies financing opposition with any significant influence, is the trademark of many countries where "independent media" is borderline absurdity.
    With regards to Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Barack Obama, I do believe it was a bit impulsive. Many proposed the idea that this move could delay U.S. involvement in Afghanistan (ala how could nobel price winner sanction new military expansion?!).

  5. Er, that is the whole point: the awards are "symbolic and political". They are given by anti-Cuban bodies and are part of the onslaught that the country faces.

    Bloggers such as Yohandry at http://yohandry.wordpress.com/ are just as interesting as Sanchez, but Yohandry is pro-Cuban, ergo the blog is ignored and its owner doesn't get to trouser away lots of western dosh.

  6. Exile, Thanx for pointing out Yohandry's Blog - I HAD noticed it and am in the process of preparing my own description and analysis of the bredth and scope of the Blogosfera Cubana in my continuing series "Let a Thousand Bloggers Bloom." So, stay tuned.

    Just two things now.

    First, I think the reason that Yohandry is not so popular, is that Cubans have heard the pro-government point of view over and over again - from the government itself. Blogs are usually atractive becaue they are an alternative and have personality - I will indeed read up on Yohandry and make my own decisions about "him."

    However, my second point: Sanchez gives us her real name and photo in her blog - in my admittedly brief perusal review of Yohandry's Blog, it seems that Yohandry doesn't actually exist - that is he is not a single person and is in fact made up of a group of Cubans (some named and other not) who do indeed support the government. Also, the name Yohandry was clearly chosen as a direct response to Yoani - since she mentions that name specifically as one of the members of Generacion Y.

    So Yohandry, we could say, is one of the "hijos de Yoani."

    More to chew on here.

    Exile - by they way - sometimes I can follow you due to your... modismos, e.g. "trouser away western dosh," translation - pocket a lot of bling-bling???

  7. Bling is the cheap, flashy jewellery that the kids wear; dosh and brass both mean money.

    Many of my earlier postings read like academic essays, so now I force myself to keep the postings to less than a 1,000 words - and I regard 750 as pushing things a bit.

    I sort of take your point about Yohandry. Cambiosencuba.blogspot.com is written by one man, I think, but Yohandry is a team effort. Both blogs also seem to exist as a reaction to Sanchez, which also irritates a bit.

    Quite why a Cuban socialist cannot sit down and chat about their life in Cuba is beyond me. However all such blogs do seem to exist in opposition to Yoani Sannches and that is their failure.

  8. Hang on - the blog runs on a WordPress platform - so why did Sanchez claim that she wrote it herself using HTML?

  9. Exile, mi amor, if you would care to read the links - without prejudice - you will see that Yoani explains quite clearly that she used her own HTML platform for the first 6 months, and only then after readers demanded the ability to be able to post comments, did she switch over to Wordpress. That is why I call it an organic, "grass-roots" blog, as opposed to a CIA, bells-and-whistles one.

  10. I've never thought that the company set up Sanchez as a stooge from day one. The blog was set up for whatever reason and then the west moved in and gave it a helping hand with the odd bung from time to time. That said, the shots of her sneaking out of the Polish Embassy one evening are amusing. . .

    By the by, her latest offering has it that some Cuban demonstrators looked afraid on TV. Alas for Sanchez the TV report is available on YouTube and will go up at my place tomorrow. They look like they are having the time of their lives to me.