Cuban Dissident Yoani Sanchez on the Power of the Hashtag

PHOTO: Cuban Blogger Yoani Sánchez Makes First U.S. Appearance at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York City on March 14, 2013.

Bruce Gilbert/Columbia University

It happened in an instant. The Saturday afternoon panel on Cuban digital life in a global context devolved into a shouting match between a handful of Cuban government sympathizers and Cuban(-American) exiles in the audience over the presence of dissident Cuban blogger and activist Yoani Sanchez.

The Saturday kerfuffle, which took place at the New School in New York City, became a real-time metaphor for the fervor surrounding the outspoken 37-year-old government critic. Her detractors and supporters volleyed insults and slogans at each other at the event, the third gathering of the "Revolution Recodified" symposium. The weekend interdisciplinary forum, co-hosted by the New School and New York University, aimed to delve deep into the complexities and nuances of the Cuban digital space and its political, economic, cultural, and global contexts but at times the schisms on the surface proved difficult to overcome.

Sanchez arrived in the United States for the first time last Thursday on an 80-day, 12-country tour that has so far taken her to cities in Brazil, Mexico and various European countries since late February. The Generation-Y blogger and Voces Cubana collective member had been denied permission to leave the island 21 times in the last five years.

In that time, Sanchez has chronicled and disseminated vivid and often poetic missives about life and repression in Cuba on her blog, Generation Y, and Twitter. Her site reportedly garners 10 million unique views per month, and she has over 450,000 Twitter followers (her actual readership within Cuba is low because Cubans have strictly limited access to the Internet). Sanchez has been jailed on several occasions for her writings and activism, but she's also been recognized for her courage by President Obama, named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential and won numerous awards.

That afternoon at the New School, Sanchez herself was nonplussed by the "liar" taunts and the accusations of CIA and State Department sponsorship from individuals who held up signs arguing that Cuba's state-subsidized food, education, and health care were the true human rights. She may well have grown accustomed to her overseas critics by now. Protesters have also turned up at her events in Brazil and Mexico. Sanchez has said she welcomes them, and the freedom of expression and open dissent they symbolize.

At the end of the disruption, she quipped in Spanish: "A very important Cuban tactic: the act of repudiation."

Sanchez kept a similarly sobered and inspired perspective the night before at the conference's opening event where she delivered its keynote speech. She shared anecdotes about the power of a hashtag and social media in helping collect one ton in aid for Hurricane Sandy victims in the eastern part of the island. Sanchez said Cuban tuiteros and blogueros are determined to organize and express themselves in spite of the state-controlled media and curtailed rights. The self-dubbed "people's diplomat" advocated for a plurality of voices and an open, participatory system in Cuban society online and in government. "Being anti-imperialist is no excuse for supporting the Cuban dictatorship," she said.

Sanchez also deftly fielded inquiries about her own privilege in comparison to people in war-torn regions outside of Cuba and Afro-Cubans who lack her access to resources within the country. At Sunday's closing plenary, she expounded on her view of other human rights struggles.

"If I lived in the United States, I'd probably have a blog denouncing many of things that occur here, but so it happens I was born in Cuba," she said through a translator. "I have a commitment to my reality, but that doesn't mean my defense of human rights and individual liberties are limited to geographic location."

But mostly, Sanchez has been greeted with support at her New York public appearances. Her keynote and panel presentations this weekend were punctuated by applause and exclamations of "Yes!" and "There you go!" from the local Cubans in attendance. Several offered tearful testimonies and expressions of gratitude during the Q&A portions, too. As artist, scholar and conference organizer Coco Fusco put it, "Yoani says out loud in public what every Cuban wanted to say but couldn't."

Yoani's stateside speaking tour kicked off on Thursday night at Columbia University's School of Journalism, where she belatedly received the prestigious Maria Moors Cabot Prize. It was actually awarded to her four years ago, but she was prohibited from leaving the island and couldn't accept it in person.

On this stateside leg, Sanchez has already met with the Cuban youth digital advocacy group Roots of Hope, visited the Committee to Protect Journalists and toured Google's New York headquarters. The blogger popped into a Reddit AMA on Saturday afternoon and her instagram has captured images of local sights seen, too.

Upon her return to Cuba, Sanchez has announced plans to launch an independent news outlet. In the meantime, she continues her tour through the United States this week. Her itinerary includes meetings with members of Congress, as well as speaking dates at the Cardozo Law School today, Georgetown University on Wednesday and City College of New York on Thursday.

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