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    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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