The book from Yoani Sánchez - author of Generation Y blog - that narrates the realities of the “revolution” in Cuba and the mysteries of life in Havana, reviewed by Oscar Morales Guevara.
By Oscar Morales Guevara
The realities of the “revolution” in Cuba and the mysteries of life in Havana have long eluded understanding by those outside the island. But since 2007, Yoani Sánchez has sought to shed light on the present-day reality of Cuban life through her Generation Y blog. Now the world-renowned blogger, named by CNN and Time magazine in 2009 as one of the most influential people in the world, has compiled selected blog posts in a book that should not be missed.
Cuba libre: Vivir y escribir en La Habana (Free Cuba: Living and Writing in Havana) is a testament to her bravery and unassailable writing capacity. With impeccable conceptual clarity, and prose worthy of Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez, the book transports the reader to Havana and allows her to share the frustrations, deceptions and anger of daily life in the Cuban capital.
Sánchez paints a crystal-clear picture of a regular day on the island—a place where every year the Castro family, first Fidel and now Raúl, promises to remove the absurd restrictions imposed on the islanders, but nothing changes.
One such announcement came on October 25, 2007, when Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, in response to then U.S. President George W. Bush, declared that the Internet would be available for 2 million Cubans through the Youth Clubs, a promise that never materialized. Sánchez, in her blog post in the book, “Some Incongruencies,” declares that in reality those Youth Clubs only offered intranet services on the island, not Internet access. She describes trying to use an Internet-enabled computer when at a book fair. Within a few minutes she was stopped by one of the staff at the booth and informed that Internet was only available for tourists and foreign passport holders.
Or take the example of milk, a basic liquid for many of us but an unreachable luxury—like pineapple, papaya, a piece of meat, or a slice of cheese—for most people on the island. “I think we will first send a man to the moon, or win the Olympics, or discover the cure to AIDS, before every person on the island can enjoy a coffee with milk in the mornings,” Sánchez writes in “Where is my glass of milk?”
In Cuba, according to Cuba libre, to be caught in public with a pineapple is a suspicious status symbol, punishable by discrimination and most likely an interrogation from the security officers. This simple declaration describes it all: “Sometimes, when the urge and the nostalgia hit me, I go to the rich people’s market to buy a pineapple. I am careful enough to take with me a cloth tote bag so I can hide the queen of the fruits from the people, given the obscene status symbol it represents.”
Cubans are forbidden to be rich, except those in high-level government positions. In 1994, Cuba went through a short period of freedom of enterprise, and when people began to succeed in their businesses, the government squashed their achievements. The “higher ups” as Sánchez describes government leaders, realized that “economic freedom would inevitably imply political autonomy.”
This book is not meant to be simply entertaining. It defies easy categories of a novel or even a diary or journal. Cuba libre combines a cry from the heart, with bewilderment, indignation and sadness. But its implicit yearning for change makes a strong connection with the reader.
The blog post titled “An empty seat” is one example. Written on Christmas Eve 2007, Sánchez explains how a relative, Adolfo Fernández Sainz, had spent five years in jail as a political prisoner for the great sin of speaking up. When Sánchez’s husband explains to her son that his uncle is imprisoned “because he is a very brave man,” the boy replies: “Then you are free because you are cowards.”
This is one of the many pearls hidden in an ocean of brilliant and emotional moments where reality is delivered starkly, with a strong dose of sarcasm and irony. Navigating through the blogs, one is inevitably disgusted with the way the average citizen has to struggle for the most basic activities. Nobody can escape that struggle.
At school, children are taught through a television since teachers often quit due to low salaries and lack of incentives. Motivated by that story, I decided to interview a Cuban friend who had left the island 10 years ago. She told me that when she was in elementary school in Havana, she used to crowd in front of the classroom TV along with dozens of her peers to receive the daily lessons. Blackouts were so frequent that half of their education was simply missed. Sánchez learned that from her son Teo, and tells us that “a television replaces the teacher 60 percent of the time. Children get bored and they cannot ask the teacher to repeat when they don’t understand. They just write and copy what the screen dictates.”
As a reader turns the page, the slow collapse of the “revolution” becomes apparent. Reading this moving and humbling account is likely to spark an impulse to travel to the island and meet the author to give her a laptop, to help her publish her material, and to offer solidarity. Or simply to let her know that an entire community of activists and readers across Latin America and the world deeply admire her.
Cuba libre represents the embodiment of courage, bravery and the fight for freedom—freedom that in Cuba will remain a distant dream as long as the world maintains its indifference and fails to mobilize to rescue this island just 90 miles from Miami. That will be the moment when Cubans will finally know freedom.
Oscar Morales Guevara
Oscar Morales Guevara