Not much was heard from dissidents during Pope Benedict XVI's recent visit to Cuba. They say that is because the government mounted a campaign of arrests and harassment to silence them. After the pope left, I was invited to a meeting that the country's best known Internet blogger, Yoani Sanchez, had with other critics of the government to share their experiences.
"I heard the car start moving with incredible speed," said Danilo Maldonado, waiving his arm tattooed with political drawings. "And when it turned like this, they grabbed me and shoved me inside." Maldonado, a graffiti artist, said he was held with other detainees for three days near Havana's airport.
Meeting in the shaded garden of one of their houses, these dissidents said the roundup coincided with the pope's March 26-28 visit, as he held mass in Havana and Santiago and met with President Raul Castro and his brother Fidel.
Some dissidents said they were were taken into detention, others say they were put under house arrest. Many of them said they were unable to use their cell phones.
"Whoever has details to tell should tell them, because I don't know what happened," Sanchez told the group. Earlier, in an interview, she had told me she could not receive international telephone calls and that most of the Cuban contacts in her phone book were unreachable.
A Cuban Dissident
- Yoani Sánchez, born September 4, 1975, has achieved international fame for her blog, Generation Y, which portrays the realities of daily life in Cuba.
- Sanchez grew up in height of Cuba's reliance on the Soviet Union and studied philology at university. But she says that when she graduated she was left with a distaste for the world of high culture and intellectualism. In 2002, her disenchantment with Cuba's economic asphyxiation led her to leave for Switzerland, but returned two years later.
- In April 2007, she began writing her blog, which was blocked inside Cuba until 2011. She writes at Internet cafes since she has no connection at home, but sends out regular tweets using text messaging from her cell phone.
- In 2008, she won Spain's Ortega y Gasset journalism prize and Time magazine listed her as one of the world's 100 most influential people. A year later, after she was denied permission to travel to the U.S. to receive the Maria Moore Cabot Prize award from the Columbia University, President Barack Obama wrote on her blog saying he applauded her and other bloggers "collective efforts to empower fellow Cubans to express themselves through the use of technology."
Sanchez publishes an Internet blog called "Generation Y" which is translated into 16 languages, including Polish, Hungarian and Chinese.
Earlier, in a television interview with the Voice of America, she described what she writes about. "My blog does not draw on political or academic analysis. It's about the feelings, impressions and observations that I draw from daily life," she said, seated in her apartment on the 14th floor of a Soviet-style housing block.
"For example, now, there's no electricity in this building. So you have to climb the stairs. On those stairs, I hear stories. I hear complaints; I hear frustrations. And all of that goes into my blog."
But those reflections have been deemed counterrevolutionary by Cuban authorities. And Sanchez says she has suffered retaliation.
"Arrests, days in jail, police threats," she recalls. "But I have to say that wonderful things have happened to me. To go out into the street and have people say to me, 'I read your work, I agree with you.' People my age with tears of emotion telling me to continue the fight -- that compensates for everything."
Sanchez says she was brought up as a doctrinaire youth who used to mouth slogans idolizing Marxist revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevarra. But during adolescence, she says, she watched as "everything my parents had sacrificed and struggled for left us in a miserable economic situation without a future."
She cannot travel abroad to collect awards she has received. What hurts her the most, she says, is the intimidation of those dear to her. "I've lost many friends, people who are afraid to be near me. But I've also made new friends, who are aware of the risks" -- like the fellow bloggers, journalists, artists and dissident clergy who gathered to talk about what happened to them during the papal visit.
Reverend Jose Conrado Rodriguez Alegre, a Catholic priest form Santiago, told them that his house was surrounded by security forces. He promised to pass on the testimonies to the papal nuncio. "In the church, whoever prevents a priest or ordinary Christian from directly communicating with the Holy Father commits a grave offense," he said.
Their allegations did not draw a response from the Cuban government. Since taking over the presidency from his ailing brother Fidel, Raul Castro has moved to liberalize the country's economy and let ordinary Cubans have cell phones and Internet access.
Many defenders of Cuban communism praise its egalitarian ideals and say it provides a high standard of universal health care and education, in spite of the 50-year-old U.S. economic embargo. Sanchez has written that the embargo should be lifted, but she has little patience for people in Western countries who romanticize Cuba.
"I would advise most of those people to spend two months in Cuba, trying to survive on a local salary and live on rations. And I'm sure that after those two months, they would be more critical of the Cuban government than I or any other opposition figure based in this country."
Last year, the government lifted a three-year blockage on blogs like Sanchez's. "The only thing the Cuban government achieved during those three years is that alternative blogs became very popular through alternative networks - being distributed hand to hand, on CDs and flash drives," she said.
But Sanchez says that because Arab youth played a key role in toppling authoritarian governments during the past year, the Cuban government has tightened its control on society.
She tweets from her cell phone via text messaging, but has no Internet connection at home. She has to go to hotel business centers where online access costs about $10 per hour, a fortune for ordinary Cubans.
Sanchez says adversities such as these lead many Cubans to feel apathetic, "as though this is some sort of curse and there's nothing we can do." But she says the Middle East and North Africa uprisings changed that and gave young Cubans a feeling of empowerment.
"Civil society is in ferment," she says. "Things are happening not just among dissidents, but also among young people making hip hop music, art, theater, alternative film."
Many of them, including Yoani Sanchez, are convinced that the future of Cuba is in their hands.