I grew up across the street from a Cuban family, spending entire summers in their kitchen drinking root beer floats and watching soap operas like Days of Our Lives. They had HBO and could eat sweets more than twice a week, and so the girls on my block spent much of our time at the Sandoval house. Both daughters, girls around my age and the first to be born in California, never learned Spanish. Nobody in the family ever spoke of Cuba, and I never asked.
It was only when I decided to travel to Havana for a university-sponsored trip that I realized I knew nothing about life in Cuba. I had only the exotic images of antique cars on cobbled streets, sea-sand and rum drinking, the cacophony of salsa music from colonial buildings. Public diplomacy is communication between a government and a foreign public, and Cuba had portrayed itself to the U.S. public as a mighty underdog against the hegemonic United States. I could speak of little else.
And so I came to stumble upon a blog written by a skinny Cuban woman named Yoani Sanchez, a brave dissident who challenged what I had read in guidebooks or seen in movies. After spending five years in Switzerland, Sanchez returned home to the frustrations of everyday Cuban life: not enough food to eat, two-day long lines for bus tickets, and a never-ending stream of friends and family defecting to Europe and the U.S. To deal with the hardships and her own disappointment, she began writing a blog.
At the time, Internet usage in Cuba was restricted to tourists, so Sanchez would pretend to be German and sneak into hotel Internet cafes to post her blogs. Once the government caught on, she began emailing her entries to friends and volunteers abroad, who would translate and post her writing to her blog, Generation Y. In 2009, her blog was published as a book, and in 2011, it was translated into English.
The book, Havana Real, is a collection of her blog entries from 2007 to 2010. It reads like a series of vignettes; cynical, sometimes bitter pieces of Sanchez’s thoughts, a reflection of the sadness she feels at the state of Cuba. As she says, “…a thread of cynicism binds us all, the cynicism necessary to live in a society that has outlived its dreams, and seen the future already exhausted before we got there.” She shows us the preoccupation Cubans have with just trying to live – to buy some milk on the black market, to fix a broken shower, to pay an electricity bill. Simple tasks take hours, and a numbing amount of patience.
She even daydreams about a tourism campaign she calls “Come Stay a lo Cubano” (like a Cuban) – where foreigners visiting Cuba use unreliable public transportation, receive a ration of bread, and stay in dingy rooms or crowded shelters for hurricane victims just like everyday Cubans. “(Tourists) will leave thinner, sadder, and with an obsession with food, which they will satisfy in their home supermarkets…the golden advertisements of mulatas, rum, music and dancing will not hide the collapsing buildings, frustration, and inertia of the Cuba they have known and lived,” she writes.
Cuba is changing, largely because of technology and the Internet. It is still difficult for Americans to hear the voices of everyday Cubans, but people like Sanchez are making it possible. Her book is a brave one, not only because she challenges the Castro regime, but also because she chooses to stay. When you live in a society with little hope for a future, sometimes it is easier to tune out or get out. Sanchez has decided to do neither.