Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Yoani Sánchez roadshow at the U.N.

Posted on Sunday, 03.31.13

Blogger's U.N. visit

The Yoani Sánchez roadshow at the U.N.
By Maria Werlau

She came in through the visitors' entrance after passing the security
check. When she pushed through the revolving door into the grand hall,
standing there alone, I greeted her with pretended formality: "Welcome
to the United Nations." The hall was packed with Model U.N. students. A
distance back, a U.N. official "welcome committee" stood by: Tuyet
Nguyen, correspondent for a German news agency, who had come to escort
us in on behalf of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA),
and three guests. Two media crews filmed her entry; no one seemed to

She was delayed from filming a last-minute CNN interview, so I was
determined to rush her through the next steps. Passes were secured at
the information desk — she used her Cuban passport as ID and was
photographed like any other visitor. We hurried downstairs and through
the basement parking lot to the Library building where journalists' and
UNCA offices are located during the main building renovation. As we
walked fast and through successive security points, I told her the Cuban
government had blocked our plan and we would have to improvise. We
agreed it did not matter — she was at the U.N. and she was going to
speak regardless. Just minutes before, I had read on my phone that the
tantrum had played out at the highest levels; Cuba's ambassador had
filed an official protest asking the U.N. Secretary General to call off
the "grave attack."

Cuba is very influential at the U.N. It has one of the largest and most
active representations. China, Russia, Iran, and the like are strong
supporters — plus Cuba exerts great influence over many other governments.

Cuba's diplomats are known for expertly working the U.N. bureaucracy and
rules. The room change was the least of my worries. At any moment, I
feared, we could be stopped at a security check, escorted out of the
building, or attacked by Cuba's diplomat-thugs. These things have
actually happened at the U.N. in New York and Geneva.

The briefing was planned weeks earlier for the Dag Hammarskjold Library
Auditorium, a large and elegant venue with the necessary audio
equipment. But, the day before, the UNCA liaison mentioned "certain
problems." The auditorium would not be available and we would not have
equipment for the simultaneous interpretation. I imagined great pressure
was at play. Fortunately, with a few U.N. battles under my belt, I had
asked that this be kept from Yoani's official schedule until the
invitation had been sent out. It would be harder to dismantle an event
announced to UNCA members, 200 correspondents from all over the world.

Cuba had complained that UNCA was being "manipulated by spurious
interests," but the truth is much less sinister. I represent a tiny
human rights group with the most meager of resources; most of our work
is voluntary. Familiar with UNCA, I knew it hosts press briefings with
newsworthy sources and freely decides who to invite. So, when I asked
them if they would like to host Yoani Sánchez, they immediately answered
yes — I assumed because she is a world-famous blogger and journalist.
After details were agreed on, I contacted the person handling Yoani's
schedule (a mutual friend volunteering his efforts). Once a time was
agreed, I sent UNCA her biography and suggested a media advisory. Then,
I hired an interpreter. It had all been simple and transparent.

The briefing would now be at "UNCA square" within the journalists'
temporary area during the remodeling. To my dismay, when we arrived we
found it was just an opening within a hallway surrounded by offices.
Next to a large copying machine was a tiny table with three small chairs
crammed behind it. To the side, another small table had refreshments. In
the middle, there were no more than 10 chairs. Most people had to stand
in the hallway and adjoining offices. We looked at each other puzzled,
so I pointed Yoani and the interpreter to the chairs, leaving the third
one for the UNCA host. Though the designated moderator, I stepped aside
— there was no room and no need for another person. Having seen her over
the previous days, I knew all we needed was to let Yoani speak.

A few film crews and correspondents from news agencies and several
countries were there. Italian journalist Stefano Vaccara explained to me
that no biographical commentary was needed, as everyone knew who she
was, and proceeded with a heartfelt introduction. She delivered her
remarks with no notes, as usual, her voice strong despite no microphone.

Orlando Luis Pardo, the Cuban blogger/photographer traveling with Yoani;
Mary Jo Porter, the Seattle engineer who founded a volunteer translating
service to support Cuban bloggers; and I, sat on the floor — there was
no space elsewhere.

Yoani began by saying she was proud that her first time at the U.N. was
"with my journalist colleagues." Though clarifying that she came as a
citizen and joking about being used to working in small spaces, she
pulled out all the stops. She called on the United Nations to support
human rights in Cuba and declared it was time the organization "came out
of its lethargy and recognized that the Cuban government is a
dictatorship." She asserted: "Cuba is not a government or a political
party [but] the fiefdom of one man." Further, she called for U.N.
support of an international investigation of the suspicious death of
Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá. During the Q&A, the correspondent for the
Cuban news agency, Prensa Latina, asked two questions. Unsurprisingly,
they were from the "40 questions for Yoani" that Cuban regime supporters
have trailed her with wherever she goes. He sounded pretty silly and he
must have known it, as his hands were shaking. She dispatched them
quickly, ably, and with aplomb. It's remarkable that a 37-year-old
petite and unassuming blogger took to the United Nations headquarters in
defense of fundamental rights bearing no more than her determination and
the strength of her word. The poised and eloquent "little person," as
she calls herself, made a mighty military dictatorship of over five
decades run scared to stop her from speaking. Forced into a cubicle, she
could not be silenced. Only five hours after the briefing, a Google
search produced four pages of links to news stories from around the
world in Spanish alone — all highlighting the Cuban government's bully
tactics. The regime and its minions had actually generated the lead to a
great story, made themselves look like fools, and allowed Yoani to shine

Recapping the event with Carmen Rodríguez, UNCA member from Radio Martí,
she recalled José Martí's words: "A just cause coming from the bottom of
a cave is more powerful than any army."

From start to finish, her U.N. foray could not have been more perfect
or poetic.

Maria Werlau is executive director of Cuba Archive
(, a New Jersey based nonprofit organization.

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