In our work with Project Cornerstone, we talk a lot about “UPstanders”. We probably all have at least one or two situations daily where we can make a choice to be a Bystander or an UPstander when a person or a group is either physically or emotionally abusing another person. On school playgrounds we typically use the term “bullying behavior” as an umbrella covering a variety of negative behaviors between children and youth that is hurtful. It takes courage and inner strength to be an UPstander – to go against the crowd and say something like “This isn’t how we treat people at this school.”
Imagine then what it must be like to be an UPstander against a repressive, totalitaritian government. When being an Upstander reaches the level of political disagreement, one is given the label “dissident” by a government that hopes to silence that person. Yoani Sanchez is such a person. She and her husband, Rinaldo, along with their teenage son, Teo, live in a modest apartment in Central Havana – on the 14th floor of a building whose elevator is broken more than working. They consider their apartment their “bubble of freedom” where the truth can be spoken. Some of our group of SJSU students and faculty spent an afternoon and evening with Yoani, her family and several of their friends – exchanging ideas and learning in more depth what it has been like to grow up and into adulthood under the Castro regime.
Yoani is a blogger. President Obama is one of the followers of her blog – along with leaders and ordinary people all over the world. She has 200,000 followers on Twitter – but not in Cuba – since social media is blocked in Cuba. Yoani can’t even read her own blog once it’s posted – the government makes certain it is blocked.
Our time with this beautiful family two weeks ago was remarkable. One of the images that will stay with me forever is Yoani showing us her Cuban passport full of visas from other countries giving her permission to travel there. But since the Cuban government won’t allow her to leave the country, her passport has never been used. Over the years she has had permission at least 4 times to visit the US – the most recent to receive a special award from Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton – but she was not at that ceremony. Travel visas from at least 14 countries stuff the passport of Yoani Sanchez, an UPstander for her people, her country and anyone who believes in the freedoms we so often take for granted in the US.
We learned over the weekend that the Progressive Democratic Union in Spain had submitted 5 letters with the 5 institutions they have voting rights in, which includes the European Union, nominating Yoani Sanchez and one other Cuban dissident for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. The leaders of this political party in Spain believe “an extraordinary award is merited for those that do not have a voice in dictatorships.” The nominators are hopeful that giving these two opposers the Nobel Prize for Peace will empower all those people “who have no voice”, especially in those countries where the leadership is authoritarian.
Awards cover one entire wall of their apartment – to add the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize would be quite a coup. However, I have a feeling not even that prestigious award could mean more to her than what her 16 year old son said during our recent visit. One of our students asked him what he thought about the work his mother was doing. Without hesitating Teo said “I am proud of my mother. I think she is very brave and very valuable to the future of our country.” Suddenly it was just a mother and her son – a mother acting as an extraordinary role model for her child – and a child learning about values, social justice and freedom on a daily basis.