Politics and the Spanish Language: A review of Yoani Sánchez’s ‘Cuba Libre’

Antonio Sosa Contributor
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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 utopia.”

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.”