To get around Cuba's restrictions on Web access, the waif-like 32-year-old posed as a tourist to slip into an Internet cafe in one of the city's luxury hotels, which normally bar Cubans. Dressed in gray surf shorts, T-shirt and lime-green espadrilles, she strode toward a guard at the hotel's threshold and flashed a wide smile. The guard, a towering man with a shaved head, stepped aside.
"I think I'm able to do this because I look so harmless," says Ms. Sánchez, who says she is sometimes mistaken for a teenager. Once inside the cafe, she attached a flash memory drive to the hotel computer and, in quick, intense movements, uploaded her material. Time matters: The $3 she paid for a half-hour is nearly a week's wage for many Cubans.
Ms. Sánchez has done this cloak-and-dagger routine since April, publishing essays that capture the privation, irony and even humor of Cuba's tropical Communism -- "Stalinism with conga drums," as she and her husband jokingly call it. From writing about the book fair that blacklisted her favorite authors to the schoolyard where parents smuggle food to their hungry children, Ms. Sánchez paints an unflinching, and deeply personal, portrait of the Cuban experience.
While there are plenty of bloggers who dish out harsh opinions on Mr. Castro, most do so from the cozy confines of Miami. Ms. Sánchez is one of the few who do so from Havana.
For seven months, Yoani Sanchez has been publishing an often highly critical blog about Cuba -- from Havana. And her writing has become important for those trying to understand Cuba in Castro's twilight years.
"What makes her so special is that she is fresh, observant and on-the-scene," says Philip Peters, a former Latin America official at the State Department who now studies Cuba at the Lexington Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "Almost all of the Cuba blogs are written by people who travel there occasionally, or by people who haven't seen the island in 40 years, if ever," he says.
Not only does she write from Cuba, she even signs her name and posts a photo of herself on her Web site. Most Havana bloggers are anonymous. "Once you experience the flavor of saying what you think, of publishing it and signing it with your name, well, there's no turning back," she says. "One of the first things we have to do, a great way to begin to change, is to be more honest about saying what you think."
It's easy to see why Ms. Sánchez is such a mystery. In a place known for bombastic gesticulation, she makes her points with subtle wit. She is passionate about Cuban culture, but doesn't care for signature elements like baseball and cigars. Though a critic of the government, she hasn't affiliated with the island's official political opposition. Perhaps most surprising on an island that many risk their lives to flee, she left Cuba in 2002, only to return two years later.
Her blog is called Generación Y. The title refers to a fad for names starting with "Y" that began in the 1960s. Cuba's boxing team, for instance, has members named Yoandry, Yuciel, Yampier and Yordenis. Roughly between 25 and 40 today, people in this generation are the offspring of the revolutionaries. Weaned on Soviet cartoons and Communist slogans about a "luminous future," they came of age amid shortages of food, clothing and soap as the economy crumbled.
This group will play a critical role in forging a new Cuba once Mr. Castro is gone. Many expect a showdown between Ms. Sánchez's broadly disillusioned generation and an older group of hard-liners who will try to keep a version of the Castro model going after he dies. Her writing has become required reading for Cuba experts seeking insight into the psychology of this group. Her blog received a half-million hits in October.
In addition to publishing her blog, she talks freely about taboo subjects. She tells neighbors that she doesn't vote, a shocking admission in Cuba. She isn't a member of any of Cuba's quasi-compulsory political organizations.
"There are many ways to pretend in Cuba: you can say things that you don't believe, or you can stay quiet about the things you don't like," she says. "I have the tranquility of being able to look at my son and he knows that I don't fake it."
At the same time, she tries not to cross a line that will give the government a reason to shut her blog down. She uses only public Internet sites, instead of trying to set up an illegal Internet link from home, as some Cubans do. The family lives on between $20 and $60 a month, she says, earned from working with tourists. She confines her writing to the Web. Critiques published on paper are considered propaganda, while the Internet is a gray area.
Still, there is no guarantee that Ms. Sánchez's activities won't land her in legal trouble. Even if jailed, Ms. Sánchez says she would find ways to publish her blog. "You have to believe that you are free and try to act like it," she says. "Little by little, acting as though you are free can be contagious."
I visited her web site, and I added it to my bookmarks. There is one post she wrote that makes the point of her using subtle wit. This is the post about a crowd of Cubans trying to get inside the movie theater to watch a German film about the spying machinery operating in the shadows in the former Soviet Union. The doors to cinema were closed, and people outside wanting in began chanting "Open Up!" The post from her blog:
Here I leave you this picture from last Saturday at the entrance to the Acapulco Cinema, to see the film “The Life of others”. I think that it has been the biggest mob seen in that festival. Those of us outside were yelling “Open up!”, after seeing that they were closing the doors, in reaction to the stampede that wanted in. I imagine that such scream was not limited to pass the entrance to the Acapulco Cinema, but it was a call to “Opening” with capital letters. I yelled it, also, thinking about the dams, the limits and the borders that have to yield and let us through.
Open up! We yelled outside the cinema and one hour later we could hear the character in the film saying “the wall has fallen”. “Open up!” -we said with faces against the glass, while we were pushed back-. “Open up!” -we continued thinking, even when we were already in the comfy chairs, the lights about to go off. “Open up!” -They were the words that I kept from that night, and I repeated them the next morning.
So, the movie, renamed here “Our lives”, allowed us to yell openly, right in the middle of 26th st, a verb that concentrates all of our desires: “Open up!”.
I think some things are going to happen in Cuba. I do not know what they are, or if they are going to make life better or worse in the short term for Cubans. I do know that I am going to occasionally surf over to Yoani's web site. It is worth my time to do so.