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“Special periods” vs. “Economic downturn”: a world of euphemisms makes food for thought

I don’t remember when or where I first heard of Yoani Sanchez.
But in the past several months I’ve become transfixed in front of my computer screen, waiting to read up on her latest blog,
Sanchez doesn’t write about the trials and tribulations of being a modern mother. Her “issues” don’t revolve around hitting the glass ceiling, or achieving that ideal weight, or dealing with nut allergies, or having enough self-esteem.
Rather, she writes about leaking ceilings, broken elevators and not having enough to eat in tropical Havana, Cuba.
Most of us living in North America wouldn’t be able to profess to knowing much about Cuba, beyond news briefs on Guantanamo, the much boasted about 98 % Cuban literacy rate and the high number of trained doctors in the country (that is, in the days before president-for-life Hugo Chavez and the exchange of doctors for oil between Cuba and Venezuela.)
We might also recall that one of our Prime Ministers had a special relationship with Fidel Castro, and that it fairly pissed off the US government.
It might also have gotten our attention recently that the Obama administration now wants to call off the restrictions for US citizens travelling to Cuba, or sending money there.
(Perhaps he wants to open up trade with the country, or maybe he wants to learn something more about nationalization and the ‘redistribution’ of wealth?)
Many Canadians visit Cuba each year, returning to describe endless beautiful white sand beaches and funky 1950’s automobiles, but a buffet that was a bit lacking (after all, if you wanted pumpkin and shredded pork every night, you could get it in Canada all winter long), and a poolside bar that ran out of beer by 11 a.m.
I have never been to Cuba myself, but the life of Yoani Sanchez has my full attention once a week or so when I catch up on her latest writing.
Because regular Cuban people (read: not party hacks or those with government jobs) cannot have e-mail accounts or access much Internet content in Cuba, Yoani’s blog is written, according to her, on a laptop cobbled together with cannibalized parts, saved on a black market memory stick, taken to an Internet café for tourists, snuck into the café somehow, and e-mailed to someone out of country who uploads it to the server housing the portal “” (, Generation Y, click on the UK flag for English).
Winner of the 2008 Ortega y Gasset Prize for Digital Journalism (which she was unable to receive in person because she wasn’t allowed to leave the country), Yoani is in her early 30s, married, with one child in middle school. She trained in the study of languages, and was going to go into academic teaching but was basically too much of a s— disturber. Didn’t kiss up enough, or follow the party line.
Yoani’s blog describes many examples of people arrested for their writing, or speeches, or activities that were deemed, in one way or another, to be “counter-revolutionary”.
But it’s the everyday life of Cubans like Yoani that fascinates me, like her description of a trip to the hospital to visit a friend, and the amount of bribery and extra black market supplies it took for this friend to get proper health care. The part about the glass syringes will definitely make you squirm.
Yoani’s own upbringing involved special youth camps in the countryside, where teenagers were sent to help with the harvests, and children being questioned in school about any possible subversive activities their parents were involved in, or money they were receiving from relatives abroad.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the early 1990s, Cuba, which relied on the USSR for fuel in exchange for sugar, etc., went through what the government called “The Special Periods”.
Foods and fuel were in very short supply, and the country’s whole distribution system essentially collapsed.
On and off, Cuban president Fidel Castro (who is, I’ve heard, rarely referred to by name in the country, but called nicknames like ‘Bearded One’) allowed some forms of private enterprise, only to reign in those entrepreneurs when it looked like they were getting too smart for their own good.
The high literacy rate wasn’t really helping people out too much when they had to resort to the sorts of things people have to resort to in order to get food on the table.
In Canada, your kid gets a stomach ache, you pull him off dairy and take him to the allergist. Yoani’s son, as she describes in one blog entry, hasn’t received a milk ration in years.
Another touching piece describes the child, a daughter, that Yoani feels she will never have, because Cuban women are finding it increasingly difficult to bring up families in that country.
There are some who think that Yoani’s story is a little too unlikely. If the government is that repressive, why hasn’t she been hauled in by now? Someone surely recognizes her, when she pretends to be a German tourist in the Internet café.
She even left the country once, to live in Switzerland, but returned, she said “for family reasons.”
Not for me to judge how crazy it was for her to do so. Some people thrive on their own misery. But some people also fervently believe it is their duty to stay in their country of birth and to ‘see it through.’
Now, she’s a media darling, but I am curious to see what will happen to blogs such as Yoani’s when Cuba, as is only inevitable, gradually opens up to the world and a return to trade with the US.
Will she head up the first ‘free Cuban press’? Discard her desire for free speech in favour of better clothing and the chance to eat steak again?
For now, if even half of what she says rings true, Yoani’s blog is a reality check, a window on the soul of a nation where Canadians, “the poor Americans”, go for the white sand beaches and cocktails made with powdered juice mix, because the fruit never made it to market.

Julia Kuzeljevich

Julia Kuzeljevich

Julia Kuzeljevich is managing editor of Motortruck magazine, as well as sister publication Canadian Transportation & Logistics and With nearly seven years’ experience writing for the Canadian transportation industry, Julia specializes in human interest, in-depth news and business articles of interest to the trucking and logistics sectors. Julia has a degree in languages with a postgraduate specialization in journalism, and work experience in the air transportation industry.
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