Sunday, October 24, 2010

A review of Yoani Sánchez's 'Cuba Libre'

Politics and the Spanish Language:
A review of Yoani Sánchez's 'Cuba Libre'
By Antonio Sosa 8:49 AM 10/24/2010

In his famous essay describing the character of the Enlightenment, Kant
adopted Horace's exhortation, "Sapere aude," as the unofficial motto for
the age. Today, we may find a modest and beleaguered exemplar of this
18th century precept –which means, simply, "dare to discern" — in the
influential Cuban dissident Yoani Sánchez. Her recently published book,
Cuba Libre, collects her blog posts over a period of three years, from
April of 2007 to October of 2009. In them, Sánchez reflects on the
myriad of obstacles and vicissitudes affecting her and millions of
ordinary Cubans: the precariousness and meagerness of the rationed food
system; the absurd hardship of earning a salary in one currency while
having to buy victuals and necessities in another; the invigilated and
highly restricted state of the Internet, access to which remains
prohibitively exorbitant; the infantilizing prohibition on free
expression and association; and the impossibility of leaving the country
without first obtaining the State's permission, to name some of the most
salient issues. Although an English translation of the book has not yet
come out, most of her vignettes are available in English either through
the site Generation Y or the through thoughtfulness of the Huffington Post.

Those who take the time to peruse her brief essays will be delighted to
find that the most praiseworthy thing about Sánchez, however, is not the
open manner in which she has voiced her dissent, nor the uncompromising
content of her criticism –courageous though both are — but rather her
literary skill, her ability to evoke arresting images and situations. In
a 2009 blog post entitled "Incredulous Grandchildren," [all translations
are mine unless otherwise noted] Sánchez imagines the joy of taking a
walk with her hypothetical grandson in a free Cuba of the distant
future. Picturing the expression of boredom and bemusement with which he
might meet her stories of a Cuba under Castro, Sánchez imagines that she
might make the following reflection:

This boy doesn't know that the premonition of his existence allowed me
to maintain my sanity forty years back. Anticipating him — with his
expression of disbelief sitting on a park bench in the Havana of the
future — kept me from taking the way of the sea, pretending, or silence.

Political criticism aside, Sánchez is communicating a longing to see a
Cuban posterity so completely emancipated that the trials of her own day
are unintelligible to them. In imagining her grandson as belonging to
this emancipated generation, however, she is also conveying a sober
assessment of the dictatorship's sclerotic obduracy. Sánchez could've
made both these points without having to resort to imagery and
speculation, but then she could not have made them so compellingly.
Images and metaphors are essential to her writing because she wishes to
convey more than mere information about injustices in a given country;
she wishes to convey the feelings — such as helplessness, trepidation,
and fear — that such injustices elicit. For a blogger forced by
circumstance to post articles in a furtive and hurried manner, this
method carries definite advantages.
Commenting on the cruel and arbitrary nature of the food rationing
system, Sánchez writes: "To tell a Cuban family that, starting tomorrow,
they won't have the limited quantities…they receive from the ration
store is to saw off the piece of floor on which they stand." In a 2009
post, Sánchez expresses mixed feelings over the desire to escape Cuba —
by means of a raft or a fake marriage — that she imagines her young son,
Teo, will one day surely feel; as a result, she puts the following
aphoristic question to herself: "How can I try to have him lay down
roots in a country where few can bear fruit?" Or consider the precise
way in which she describes and qualifies the slightly improving human
rights situation in Cuba: "With the gradual disappearance of the
inquisitors, the heretics are gaining confidence, which does not mean
the bonfires [for burning people at the stake] have been put out."
Immediately, one understands the moral atmosphere Sánchez has described:
the obscure mixture of modest gains constantly and abruptly followed by
episodes of Castroite revanchism, which seeks to salvage a decaying order.

Sánchez never strays far from levity, however, and is occasionally
playful in her criticism of the dictatorship's deceitfulness. When the
Cuban government publishes its economic growth figures in late 2007,
Sánchez pretends not to notice that such figures are self-evident
fabrications: "I, particularly, have looked in my wallet, in the
kitchen, and especially in the refrigerator, yet economic progress does
not appear to be evident there."

The reason I highlight the quality of her writing is because I believe
it is intimately related to her integrity as a witness. During a
memorable 1968 episode of "Firing Line," William F. Buckley excoriated
Norman Mailer for having proffered a glib apologia of Castro. After
listing a series of basic freedoms the Caribbean Leninist had abolished,
Buckley teased Mailer by concluding that he was "a wonderful writer, but
a terrible witness." One could say Sánchez is a wonderful writer because
she is a wonderful witness. When reading her pieces, one is reminded of
the oft-forgotten relationship between well-written prose — which Orwell
once described as resembling a windowpane — and the disinterested search
for the truth. Those who write clearly often write honestly, in other
words, and this, in turn, points to a kinship between good prose and
good faith. In a 2007 post, Sánchez expounds on this crucial
relationship between a lack of clarity in language and a lack of
soundness in politics:

What I detest immensely is hollow talk, theorization that avoids calling
things by their name, the verbal pivot that conceals or disguises. For
example, the economic term 'monetary duality' says very little about the
devastating fact that you are not able to buy, with the currency you are
paid in, the things you need in order to live. [My translation.]

Later in the post, Sánchez insists that Cubans "should not let academics
and bureaucrats name what we live. We should not allow them to cover
over our day-to-day with incomprehensible technical terms." Her point is
that by reclaiming the proper names of things, Cubans edge closer to
forming a proper judgment of them. To develop a moral distaste for
abstruse and bureaucratic language is to inoculate oneself against the
worst effects of propaganda. In this vein, Sánchez's blog could be seen
as a modest attempt to inoculate Cubans against deceptive language by
showing them the perpetual, laughable, and obvious difference between
government propaganda and the plain reality it purports to describe. The
ultimate goal of such an inoculation would be the exacerbation of
disgust with the disease itself, rather than merely its symptoms.

The Internet, which Sánchez refers to in a post as a "virtual raft," is
her inexorable ally in this worthy project, the sine qua non of her
resistance. In a 2008 post, she describes the World Wide Web, which
remains effectively out of reach to most Cubans, as "the tapestry
wherein we attempt to weave the shreds of our civil society." In a 2009
post, she describes the overwhelming, Internet-based student resistance
in Iran (sparked by that year's general election fraud) as a "lesson for
Cuban bloggers," adding: "Authoritarians must also be taking note of how
dangerous Twitter, Facebook, and mobile phones can turn out to be."

Sánchez's clever use of the Internet is also fascinating in a
philosophical sense. In expressing her hope that the Internet and
related technologies will enable Cubans to associate and, through a
collective effort, effectively impugn the authority of the island's
political class, Sánchez reveals her deepest political faith: she is a
real Enlightenment progressive. She believes the dissemination of and
access to information — a process made exponentially faster and more
democratic by the Internet and other modern technologies — hastens the
destruction of tyranny and heralds the advent of Karl Popper's open
society. As more Cubans learn the truth about their regime, in other
words, they will naturally grow to despise and resist it with greater
tenacity. By simply logging on, ordinary Cubans gain the power to debunk
the lies and expose the secrecy upon which the authority of their
dictatorship rests. Today, Cubans no longer need to rely exclusively on
state-sanctioned media in order to obtain information, and this seems to
be having a slow but significant effect on the relations of power. "It
seems it is no longer possible," Sánchez writes, "to deactivate that
precarious and clandestine web that brings us 'news of ourselves'."
The reason why Sánchez' Enlightenment idealism has had such an
invigorating effect on American readers (as is evidenced by her sudden
notoriety) is because it is the opposite of the cynical and derisive
attitude adopted by many contemporary American progressives, whom one
often hears insisting that until problems like poverty and health care
are totally resolved, concepts like "freedom" and "democracy" can only
ever be meaningless illusions intended to cajole the support of
simple-minded yokels. Sánchez, for her part, is too desperate to succumb
to such cynicism and too threatened to fall for such utopianism. Her
simple and undaunted belief in the possibility of establishing human
rights in Cuba, amid the ubiquitous threat of state-sponsored
invigilation and intimidation, reminds one of Orwell's nostalgic verse
about an Italian militiaman he'd met during the Spanish Civil War:

For the flyblown words that make me spew
Still in his ears were holy,
And he was born knowing what I had learned
Out of books and slowly.

Concerning the U.S. embargo against Cuba, Sánchez makes a point of
calling it an "embargo/blockade" in order to stress what she regards as
its dual nature: the "external" embargo against Cuba by the US, with
which everyone is familiar, and the "internal" blockade against Cuba by
the Communist Party of Cuba, which is not often brought up by those who
criticize the "injustice" of the American embargo. Sánchez laments that
"this internal blockade, constructed on the basis of limitations,
control, and censorship, has cost Cubans considerable material and
spiritual losses." And given the transformative power of American
commerce, she believes the "external" embargo represents a missed
opportunity for the U.S., whose Cuba policy has only exacerbated the
plight of millions of Cubans by making it harder for them to make ends
meet. At one point, Sánchez describes the remittances sent from the
United States as the "indispensable oxygen needed for survival."

Of course, if the U.S. government is presently (and rightfully) being
called upon to end the embargo against Cuba, then the Cuban government
should, with the same vigor, be called upon to end its blockade against
Cubans. The "problem of the embargo" — which is so often and so glibly
lamented by many of today's forward-looking Latin Americanists — should
not be understood exclusively as an outdated and feckless Cold War
policy to which the U.S. stubbornly adheres to, but rather as a two-way
obstruction requiring, for its solution, the cooperation of two states.
Americans who want their government to lift the embargo should, if they
are acting in good faith, argue for the removal of Cuba's "internal
embargo" as well.

Sánchez's insistence on using the dual term "embargo/blockade" to
describe the issue is yet another illustration of her dedication to the
precise use of language as a means of exercising political liberty. If
one cannot be free, one can at least think, and therefore write, as if
one is free. Her blogging project — in conjunction with the broader
movement of Cuban bloggers that have appeared in recent years — proves
that language is the truest refuge of those seeking to think outside the
strictures of fanatical ideology in the hopes of developing a society
worth calling civil.
In a 2009 entry, she meditates on the state of language in Cuba by
recalling the low orthographical standards she'd witnessed as both
student and teacher ("Quijote" spelled with a "k," for instance). She
relates having once revised a history exam in which someone had spelled
"civil" (which means "civilian") as "sibir," and finds meaning in the
incident by humorously adding, "Of course, it is understandable in this
case, given that the concept is little known in this society, where
citizens are considered soldiers and not beings with rights." In a later
post, she remarks on the political significance inherent in the manner
people speak to one another. As an example, she interprets the gradual
abatement of "compañero" (a term akin to "comrade") as a form of address
among Cubans to be an auspicious sign. Proffering the reader an epigram,
she concludes a paragraph by writing, "Language can validate or bury any

If this is so, then Sánchez is among Cuba's most eloquent soldiers in
the struggle to bury the pathetic remnants of communist tyranny in the
Western Hemisphere. Sánchez's faux-naïve playfulness and ironic
detachment, her predilection for metaphor and imagery, constitute her
literary arsenal. By continually describing the occurrences of her
incidental life with arresting metaphors, she transforms the abstract
injustices of her situation into palpable and personally offensive
crimes that are felt and seen, and in a way even witnessed, by the
reader. One sympathizes with her the way one would sympathize with a
hero in a novel, and one detests the cast of villains tormenting her
because they seek to prevent our hero from realizing a complete human
life — a life in which one can write and think and associate as one's
conscience demands. For these reasons, she epitomizes everything Castro
detests and has striven to extirpate.

But Sánchez has given no sign of being the kind of human being that can
be intimidated into capitulation and servitude. When she first found
out, in May of 2008, that her "case" was being looked into by Cuban
authorities, she posted an entry in which she poked fun at her
tormentors by assuring them that she did "not keep weapons under the
bed." She then happily confessed to having done what she knew they would
always detest her for doing: "I have committed a systematic and
execrable crime: I have believed myself to be free.""

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