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LAB correspondent Tom Gatehouse blogs from Sâo Paulo
On February the 18th the award-winning Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez arrived in Brazil, immediately finding herself at the centre of a propaganda war. Throughout her tour of the country she has been followed by activists sympathetic to the Cuban government. She has been heckled, she has had fake dollar bills thrown at her, and she has been accused of being on the payroll of the CIA. One activist apparently got close enough to pull her hair.
These protests have been denounced across the Brazilian press, with those responsible accused of having not moved beyond the Cold War, and of attempting to silence Sánchez. If indeed, silencing her was the aim, then the protests have been the most farcical own goal, achieving little but to win her an unprecedented platform from which to speak. She has been quoted on the front page of the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, and she also made the cover of the scurrilous news weekly VEJA. A cartoon image of her holding a laptop and a mouse is depicted scaring an olive-green elephant, supposed to represent the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores) and the UJS (União da Juventude Socialista). The headline is ‘The Blogger That Frightens Tyranny.’ This is the line which has been adopted by the press: the lone blogger as courageous individual, daring to speak truth to power.
It is true that Sánchez has been censored, harassed and detained in her homeland, and in 2009 claimed to have been beaten up by men working for the Cuban security services. However, without seeking to justify any of this, the position of the writer or artist in Cuba is rather more ambiguous than that represented by the Brazilian press. Cuban writers have been writing for years about some of the issues that Sánchez covers in her blog. Read, for example, the Dirty Havana Trilogy by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, or the Mario Conde novels of Leonardo Padura Fuentes. Likewise, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, arguably Cuba’s most famous filmmaker, made a career out of observing and criticising the economic, social and political reality in Cuba. In Brazil, as elsewhere, the notion that the Cuban regime forbids any kind of critical voice is one which has become widely accepted. The reality though, is much more complex.
But this jars with the easy narrative currently being peddled by the Brazilian press. This is a narrative designed to advance a certain political point, one which in reality has little to do with Yoani Sánchez, and much to do with domestic politics in Brazil. The protests against Sánchez – remarkable more for strength of feeling than for strength in numbers – have been exploited as a means of flinging mud at the Brazilian left in general and at the government in particular. The VEJA feature even claims that the protests were organised by the PT in coordination with the Cuban government, and repeatedly attacks the PT for authoritarianism. The implication is that the Brazilian government is really a communist regime in disguise, and that given the opportunity it would suspend political freedoms and implement a system of state socialism based upon the Cuban model.
It is this discourse, just as much as that of the protestors, which is a hangover from the Cold War. Responding to her critics in Recife, Sánchez argued that ‘in the absence of argument, there is just shouting. This is a daily occurrence in my life.’ She would also do well to be wary of those shouting on her behalf.