Will Yoani Sánchez’s “Rainbow Tour” Bring Cuba Into the Social Media Age?

Of all the stories and accounts that I have read the last few weeks about the U.S. tour of Cuban dissident blogger and Twitter rockstar Yoani Sánchez, this tidbit from The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR) says it all for me:

Cubans must pay as much as $6 to $12 per hour to access the Internet, which [Sánchez] regards as “an act of censorship in itself.”

Even tweeting is expensive — $1.10 per tweet, meaning that Sanchez’s nearly 16,000 tweets have cost more than $17,000.

I don’t even want to think how much my Twitter bill would be if I were tweeting from Cuba, but the fact that Sánchez has to pay that much for tweets does raise questions about her transparency as a blogger and social media titan. A 2009 piece for Monthly Review titled “The Contradictions of Cuban Blogger Yoani Sanchez” by Salim Lamrani is pretty scathing and well-sourced, and I am surprised that the many unanswered questions and accusations listed in that piece still linger in 2013, while very little is being mentioned in the mainstream U.S. press about it: just read the latest from The Miami Herald, The New York Times, or catch today’s Live Tweet event with Sánchez and Univision’s Pamela Conde.

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Sánchez’s critics clearly underestimate the power of social media and Sánchez’s rise to international fame. However, even with an active and engaged social media community, I still wonder how a page like Sánchez’s gets over 15 million hits a months and is translated in over 20 languages. There is that much organic global interest in toppling the Cuban government?

You would think that Sánchez would just write a definitive STFU blog post silencing her critics for good, and not just say that it is all part of the Cuba government’s efforts to discredit her. The critics are still out there and they aren’t going away. Nevertheless, what we see are others coming to her defense, as this HuffPost opinion piece by Coco Fusco, Co-organizer of The Revolution Recodified: Digital Culture and the Public Sphere in Cuba, states, describing Sánchez’s encounter with a small group of  protesters in New York:

To [Sánchez’s] credit, she also responded calmly to many of her opponents’ questions, explaining that she recognizes the limits as well as the benefits of the internet-based movement that she leads; that she visits the U.S. Interests Section to obtain visas just as Cuban officials seeking to travel do; that the translations of her writings into multiple languages are produced by volunteers; that she makes a living from her publications and does not receive funding from the U.S. government; and that she understands her role as an independent journalist to be that of a critical conscience, rather than a promoter of official Cuban policy. Even though the conference organizers explained that Sánchez’s trip to New York was paid for by The New School and NYU, and even though her English translator MJ Porter detailed how the international team of translators had been formed, the protestors continued to accuse her of being a mercenary financed by the CIA, as if repeating unsubstantiated accusations would somehow make them true.

While it is not possible to prove that Sánchez’s protestors in New York took orders from Havana, it does appear that they do not perceive the contradiction involved in exercising their right to express alternative views in order to discredit Sánchez’s attempts to do the same in her own country. The protestors’ raucous behavior was somewhat comic, but sadly, their questions bespeak commonly held assumptions among American progressives about Cuba, Cuban dissidents and Cuban exiles. All too often, progressive Americans maintain their unflinching support of Cuba as an expression of their critical views of U.S. policy, not because of their understanding of Cuban society. Rather than renouncing their political ideals, they seek to silence the messengers who deliver a very different picture of life in Cuba as it is lived, not prescribed by a political apparatus. Unfortunately, the Cuban government makes matters worse through its hegemonic control over academic organizations that support Cuban studies abroad, and by instilling fear in Cuban studies scholars outside Cuba that public criticism of the Revolution will result in their being denied entry to the island. Recent posts from Cuba on government-sponsored blogs raised the issue of whether the presence of Sanchez and fellow blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo on American campuses might have an adverse effect on academic exchange projects between Cuban and U.S. institutions; the very act of releasing such questions can have a chilling effect on public debate about Cuba beyond its borders.

Ardent Cuba-supporters’ tirades against Cubans who publicly expresses criticism of the Cuban Revolution not only mirror the repressive tactics the Cuban government uses to discredit its internal opposition, but also deny Cubans agency as thinking subjects. As Sanchez herself put it, how could it be possible for Cuba to be the only country in the world with a citizenry that agrees with everything that its government does? Might it not be reasonable for Cuban exiles, who send billions of dollars to their island relatives and who function as de facto wholesale suppliers for Cuban small businesses, to have their views be treated with respect too? Don’t Americans deserve access to the diversity of views that exist among Cubans inside and outside Cuba? As a Cuban-American who has conducted research on Cuban culture for three decades, I have had to contend with intimidation from extreme right Cuban exiles, pro-Cuba leftists in the U.S. and Cuban state security because I refuse to stay inside the ideological sandbox created by the Cold War. I find it quite heartening now to witness how Cubans from across the political spectrum are beginning to open themselves to peaceful dialogue with each other thanks largely to the work of writers such as Yoani Sánchez who are creating virtual forums for a plurality of views about Cuba to be shared with the world.

And once in while you will see Sánchez answer her critics, but the response seems lukewarm at best. If you are going to go after your detractors, then do it. Sánchez’s biggest point —that she wants the U.S. embargo on Cuba to be lifted— contradicts the views of those who want to maintain current U.S. policy forever. That is her biggest chip. If she were a puppet of the right-wing extreme, why say that the embargo has to be lifted?

There is also the theory is that Sánchez’s visit is being encouraged by the Cuban government.

Political calculations aside, experts say that the decision to let Ms. Sánchez and other critics travel is a sign of opening on the part of the regime. Ms. Sánchez’s trip “is the biggest sign of the change in Cuban policy so far,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute in Virginia. “She’s the person with the most notoriety who has benefited” from the relaxed rules, he added.

That is why this is all complex. You have many issues going back and forth, with people insisting that this is all part of a CIA master plan to overthrow the Cuban government, while others believing that Sánchez has just taken advantage of a powerful digital arena that has been known to topple governments.

Yet this week’s current Miami lovefest for Sánchez reminds me a bit about a “Rainbow Tour.” Something feels too perfect here. No one is asking her the tough questions, outside of protesters who get scolded for being raucous. At least, so far.

You see, social media is all about transparency and honesty. Those who use it for any other reason will eventually be exposed. Sánchez would benefit a lot right now from being more transparent about what she does and why she does it. Show more proof about her independence. The same can be said about the Cuban government. Social media can actually bring more diverse voices into the fold. That should be the goal of that. Why is everyone so afraid of that?

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Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77 on Twitter) founded LatinoRebels.com (part of Latino Rebels, LLC) in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. In the last 12 months, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS’ Face the NationNPR,  UnivisionForbesand The New York Times.

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