Fighting the Cuban regime—one tweet at a time

A new breed of Cuban dissidents is storming the Internet

Freedom— one tweet at a time

Desmond Boylan/Reuters

Cuba, with the lowest Internet penetration in the western hemisphere, is hardly social networking’s next frontier. Despite the barriers, though, a new breed of dissidents is finding ways to speak out against the Castro regime online. Yoani Sánchez, one of the movement’s pioneers, blogs, tweets, and is on Facebook. Yet, like the vast majority of Cubans, she has no regular Internet access. “We’re inventing the Internet without Internet,” Sánchez says from her home in Havana. Since 2007, she has been blogging at Generación Y. Its slices of daily life in Cuba—a “prison,” she calls it, where people live under a “patronizing” state—are like essays, carefully crafted by the trained language scholar. The blog has become a roaring success, translated by volunteers into 17 different languages.

Sánchez relies on friends and readers to update her blog. She’ll dictate posts over the phone to someone with Web access, in Cuba or abroad, or send digital photos of the document through her phone. There is no such thing as home Internet for Cubans; the service is reserved for elite officials or foreign residents with deep pockets. Internet cafés are too public and expensive, but hotels are a good resource. “I write and accumulate eight or nine posts, and once I’ve saved enough money to go to a hotel, I program my posts to come out once a week,” says Sánchez. An hour online costs about $8, an astronomical sum for a Cuban whose monthly salary is close to $20.

When Sánchez was born in 1975, Fidel Castro had already been Cuba’s leader for a decade. She grew up in middle-class Centro Havana, near where she currently lives with her husband and teenaged son. Sánchez earned a degree in Hispanic philology from the Centre for the Arts and Letters in 2000, but academia frustrated her; she preferred speaking about “real problems,” she says. After working for two years as a freelance Spanish tutor for tourists, Sánchez emigrated to Switzerland in 2002. But family and her love of Cuba got the better of her; she returned in 2004, vowing to “never leave” again.

It was then that Sánchez discovered a passion for computers and journalism, and a deep distrust of the Castro regime. In 2004, with no formal training, she founded Desde Cuba, a Web portal for citizen journalists. Both Sánchez and her husband, Reinaldo, are now journalists, reporting for alternative media or freelancing for foreign outlets. Sánchez earns her income writing a biweekly column for the Spanish newspaper El País, though she only gets paycheques when someone travelling to Cuba can hand-deliver them—she doesn’t trust the postal service, and money transfer services don’t exist. Day-to-day life in Cuba is hardly easy.

Since taking over from his brother Fidel in April 2011, President Raúl Castro has promised more tolerance of dissidents. But the regime’s critics continue to be harassed. Hundreds remain in jail; many are tortured in detention centres. Civilian-clad police barge into demonstrations, beating women and men, detaining some for days without explanation. Sánchez, tired of feeling helpless, opened a Twitter account in 2008—she wanted to capture life under a dictatorship in real time. Through trial and error, she figured out how to tweet without going online: by using her cellphone. She pays $1 per tweet, 140-character messages like this: “Feel sorry for official journalists. 1 reports female soccer match with Canada and can’t say two players defected.” Some of @yoanisanchez’s more than 200,000 followers help by adding money to her cellphone account. Twitter has become the most important weapon of free speech for her and her fellow revolutionaries. They teach others how to use the Internet without Internet, offering free workshops in their living rooms. Luis Felipe Rojas, or @alambradas, has offered Internet tutorials in rural areas to at least 100 people in the last three months alone. He reports arrests, harassment and beatings of dissidents—including himself. “I know a tweet doesn’t save a life,” he says. “But it does make impunity of the state less likely.”

If not a real threat, Sánchez and her army have, at least, become a thorn in the regime’s side. Sánchez, listed as one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2008, recently ridiculed Raúl Castro’s daughter after calling out her “double standards” on tolerance on Twitter. Mariela Castro, who travels the world defending gay rights, called Cuban dissidents “despicable parasites” in an exchange with Sánchez that made headlines around the world. She has won several democracy and journalism awards, but the government has so far denied all her requests to leave Cuba. She will try once more this month: Brazil announced it has granted a visa to Sánchez, who hopes to interview President Dilma Rousseff. Whether Castro allows her to travel to Brasilia remains to be seen.


Fighting the Cuban regime—one tweet at a time

  1. Among her friends, the most important donor is the US Interests Section in Havana. If you read her many, many posts, every single one of them is critical of the Cuban state. If things were even half as bad as she portrays them, Cubans would have revolted long ago.

    The basic truth is that many Cubans want more opportunity and to be better off financially. But they are otherwise fairly satisfied with the way things are and feel that their government, despite some shortcomings tries its best to look after them.

    Canada also has free health care but free not education to university level. If we also had the latter and Ms Sanchez lived here, would this be grounds for her to accuse our government of paternalism? In her view, whatever is bad about Cuba is bad and whatever is good about Cuba is also bad.

    Most Cubans know that they are way better off than many Latin Americans despite their country being subjected to the 50-year-old US Blockade that tries to crush all activity, financial and otherwise that might improve Cubans’ lives.


      • Go away troll. More stuff in capital letters is not a substitute for lack of knowledge and absence of fact. The beauty of the internet is that we can access information, and it is clear that Sanchez is one well promoted but small voice well publicized, and paid for by the anti-cuban US dollar. Just read.

    • if it is that bad, how come so many humans rights organisations in europe, USA, and the rest of the world has awarded her with so many recognitions that you in your pathetic life will drem of having it.

  2. Why is she trying to get out now? Didn’t she get to Switzerland. I’m sure the Cuban Mafia would have gotten her to Miami.

  3. Strength of a Dissident woman. What is the Communist Cuban Regime afraid of ? That their Socialist Marxist system will cease to exist. Where is the progress under 53 years of Communist Dictatorship. A bunch of lazy educated people who have been lead to believe that ambition is Capitalism. The Cuban Government have more concrete to erect Political Monuments and paint to write and depict COMMUNIST PROPOGANDA than to renovate crumbling buildings listed to be some of the most beautiful in the western hemisphere.

  4. I’ll repeat what I said in the Yahoo.ca responses.BS!

    This Sanchez story is a fraud and she is part of the US funded propaganda net work.Let me try to explain what I mean.

    I accept that Yoani Sanchez lives in Havana and she does not like the government all that much.
    She blogs and blogs about how she does not like the government that much.
    I live in Canada and I don’t like the government all that much.
    I don’t blog, but like Yoani, I suppose I could.
    So far,so good.
    Except I wouldn’t get paid by the US or other sources, unlike Yoani.
    I wouldn’t have a regular column in the Huffington post, unlike Yoani.
    I wouldn’t be awarded some pretty suspect “human rights awards”unlike Yoani.

    (She ain’t no Solzhenitzen. Me neither.)

    However this is the point.

    How is it that a basically mediocre writer gets out of proportion exposure for saying the same thing that anyone else could say anywhere in 23rd Avenue or Obispo in Havana?

    That’s the fraud.

    As the picture in the article shows, there she sits at her computer in her comfortable home in Havana, blogging away and accepting out of country pay cheques.

    That’s the fraud.

    I accept Yoani is unhappy with the government in Cuba…and she regularly says so.

    I’m writing. Can I get a pay cheque too, like Yoani?

    Nope, because I don’t fulfill an out of country anti-government agenda…as does Yoani.

    That’s the other aspect of the fraud. This story about Yoani Sanchez.

    Macleans paid somebody to write this dribble?

    Hell, I just wrote a better researched and more informed comment in response…for free.

    I take it that my cheque’s in the mail.

    There is no shortage of valid criticisms of the Cuban government.Lots and lots are better writers than Yoani. This is part of what is really dishonest about this article because it implies her’s is the only criticism or the best.That is just not true.

    There is a whole well funded, US funded and based,network of anti-cuban blogs.Check them out,and look how they link and do a bit more reading to see how they are funded. Like the US political “PAC’s”and the rightwing think tanks. Its US government and US corporatefunding.

    There are also better and more accurate sources of information for life in contemporary Cuba,and I’ll refer just to a few below.

    There are lots of good sites available to anyone in Canada. Check out El Adversario Cubano for starters.Go to Conner Gorry’s Havana Good Times at the iTunes app store. Go to FB for Wow, the Canadian travel service for info on Cuba and Havana.

    Shame on you Macleans.

    I call BS! I mean fraud.

  5. Bring it on trolls.Shriek away! You can only do that because that’s all you’ve got. No facts.No real information and no capacity to have a substantive dialogue. 

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