Battling a bothersome cold, Cuban activist and blogger Yoani Sánchez led a class at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies (ICCAS) last week before an audience of more than 70 students, faculty, and members of the community.
“Here I am treated like I am at home, and that is how I am going to conduct myself,” said Sánchez, who was introduced by José Azel, ICCAS senior research associate.
This was Sanchez’s second trip to UM. Last April, the founder of the Generation Y blog, which gets more than 15 million hits a month and is translated into 20 languages, visited the UM Libraries’ Cuban Heritage Collection and shared stories with a spirited group from the UM School of Communication.
Sánchez enjoyed the exchange of ideas with the students, prompting UM President Donna E. Shalala to invite her to visit the campus again.
During the October 30 class, which was part of the ICCAS Cuban Studies Certificate Program, Sánchez, who has been arrested in Cuba for her criticism of the Castro regime, gave an overview, in Spanish, of Cuban civic society and the many challenges and small triumphs that its citizens face.
“I come to speak to you about hope, because if not you would not understand why I chose to stay (in Cuba) and work from there,” said Sanchez.
She described Cuban civil society as a “shredded tapestry” torn apart by the regime’s systematic insistence on instilling fear among its citizens, as well as eliminating economic autonomy, and to a degree, encouraging immigration of its youngest, most critical members.
“The Cubans who are most rebellious and the most talented and young have left,” she said. “Those young Cuban people who could have been the spark and the call to rebellion are no longer there.”
Sánchez said another tear in the civic tapestry is the government’s monopoly on free information and a free press, which limits the participation of the citizenship in civic discourse or dissidence.
“How would I let someone know who lives in a small town in Central Cuba like Tawayabon or someone in Palmarito de Cauto that at 3 p.m. there is a protest?” she asked.
She sees the new technology and social media as a medium of change for the Cuban people and a way for the civic tapestry to be repaired or “sewn back.”
Although Internet access is prohibited or heavily censored for most Cuban citizens, information does penetrate by other means, she said, including circulation of flash drives with information, and phone calls from relatives abroad.
Sánchez herself has become an international phenomenon, boasting over 500,000 followers on Twitter.
Later in the year, she plans to enrich the information available to Cuba’s citizens by launching a digital newspaper on the island that would include local news, opinions, technology news, as well as stories about human rights. She wants this to be considered a paper for the “21st century.” The newspaper would be distributed informally through USB drives and CDs on a weekly basis, but its website would be updated daily.
Her audience at UM included members from several School of Communication classes, a class on News Blogging, and students from The Miami Hurricane, and UMTV and its Spanish-language TV program “UniMiami.”
Arianne Alcorta, 20, a Venezuelan communication student who was covering the event for UMTV, asked Sánchez how she perceived young people in Cuba. “Are they trapped in that closed system that the Cuban government has imposed?” Alcorta asked.
“This young generation is apathetic and this is a result of the bombardment of ideology they have been subjected to,” Sanchez responded. “Many have their eyes focused on leaving the country. Yet I think they can be awakened, especially because of social media. Twitter has been the great revelation. We can tell the facts of the daily apartheid going on in 140 characters. Many now have a tool available to their advantage.”
Alcorta also asked what Sánchez would tell Cuban people who live in fear and thus are afraid of initiating any kind of change.
“I would tell people not to let fear paralyze them,” she said. “We will always feel fear, but we cannot let it dominate us.”