Yoani Sanchez has become the international poster girl for a new generation of Cubans trying to promote democratic reforms in their homeland — one tweet at a time.
Sanchez, who is scheduled to speak at two public events Monday during her first visit to South Florida, is easily Cuba's most famous social-media activist. She has a popular blog that her supporters translate to about 20 languages and nearly a half-million followers on Twitter.
At 37, the blogger, mom and wife, who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and ranked by Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people, belongs to a new wave of dissidents armed with laptops, cellphones, Twitter accounts and aspirations for greater personal freedoms.
"Yoani represents an entire generation of Cubans who were born and raised after the Revolution," said Jorge Duany, director of Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute, her official host for a panel discussion Monday night. "She articulates a new mode of resistance to the restrictions established by Raul Castro's regime, especially its monopoly over information."
The communist government, in power since 1959, does keep the average Cuban from reading anything that Sanchez and her fellow bloggers write. People in Cuba have limited access to the internet, and the cost of an hour of online connection at a hotel or on the black market, for example, is close to $10, about half of the average monthly wage.
Though hotels were off-limits to most Cubans until Raul Castro took power in 2008, Sanchez, who speaks German and started her blog "Generation Y" a year earlier, got around the restriction by pretending to be a European tourist, she has said on several occasions.
Orlando Pardo, who founded Cuba's first digital magazine and was briefly arrested in Havana with Sanchez last November for questioning the arrest of another activist, said it's still impossible for most Cubans to use the internet in the privacy of their homes.
"I find many ways to get online, but it bothers me that my neighbor, who just wants to get on Facebook so he can find a girlfriend, can't use the internet legally," Pardo said in a recent phone interview from New York.
Still, the internet has become a vital tool for today's Cuban activists struggling to voice their views freely, said Sebastian Arcos, who grew up in one of Cuba's most prominent dissident families — Sebastian Arcos, his father, and Gustavo Arcos, his uncle, both now deceased, were well-known human rights activists.
The younger Arcos went to prison for a year after trying to flee Cuba in 1982. He is struck by Sanchez's story about an earlier arrest in 2009, when she was able to tweet a simple message to the world — "We have been arrested." She and her colleagues were released the same day.
"The Cuban government understood that the whole world knew what was going on as it was happening," said Arcos, now an associate director for FIU's School of International Affairs. "That's the way technology is changing the relationship between citizen and government, especially authoritarian ones."
Some of Sanchez's supporters believe she was instrumental in persuading authorities in Havana to ease travel restrictions for their citizens.
In January, Cuba put into effect a new law that allows people to travel abroad more freely, without an exit visa or foreign invitation.
"It's unlikely [the policy] would have come when and how it did if it hadn't been for the bloggers, especially Yoani, who strategically converted herself into a test case," said Ted Henken, a City University of New York professor who has planned some of Sanchez's appearances in the United States.
Henken, who met Sanchez during a trip to Cuba in 2008, said the blogger had been turned down 20 times over the past five years for permission to travel abroad. On one occasion, Sanchez was unable to visit Columbia University in New York to accept the 2009 Maria Moors Cabot prize awarded to journalists who contribute to a better understanding of Inter-American relations.
"She knew she wouldn't be able to get an exit permit, but she continued to publicly demand the right to travel and published each rejection online," Henken said.
Sanchez finally was allowed to leave Cuba in February, when she began a whirlwind 80-day tour that has taken her to Brazil, Mexico, Spain, the Netherlands and the United States.
During the trip, which includes a Monday appearance at Miami's historic Freedom Tower organized by Miami-Dade College, she has encountered pro-Castro protesters who accuse her of working for the CIA and other foreign interests.
Cuban journalist Francisco Rodriguez Cruz, whose blog "Paquito el de Cuba" focuses on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender) issues, does not believe Sanchez is a genuine, "spontaneous" blogger.
"It's evident that she responds to powerful, political groups and interests that finance her directly or indirectly, and use her as a tool against the Cuban revolution," Rodriguez said via email from Havana.