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For Cuban-Americans, Miami's Freedom Tower is almost a holy place — a former immigration intake center where thousands came in the 1960s after they fled the island's communist rule.
But across the street from the hall, where Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez spoke Monday, there were protests. A dozen anti-Castro activists repudiated some of Sanchez's past comments, including her support for lifting the long-standing U.S. embargo of Cuba.
Miguel Saavedra, one of the protest leaders, summed up the issue: "The problem is the Cuban people are looking for a leader, for the leader to represent the nation, and they take Yoanni. They got the wrong idea."
In Miami's Cuban-American community, though, that's clearly a fringe view. While the small group demonstrated outside the Freedom Tower, hundreds of Cuban-Americans lined up to hear the 37-year-old woman who, using the Internet and social media, has become one of Cuba's most important democracy activists. Her blog is translated into 20 languages and followed around the world.
"She's one of those voices you have to hear, because she's talking about the reality of the Cuban people, the real life, the daily life in Cuba," said Rosa de la Torre, who has been following Sanchez's blog since it began.
'There Is Only One Of Us'
In the Freedom Tower auditorium, several hundred people treated Sanchez like a rock star, giving her a sustained standing ovation.
With brown, waist-length hair and a relaxed manner, Sanchez spoke in Spanish as English subtitles were projected on the video feed in the hall. She began her talk by reading an entry from her blog, called "Generation Y."
She recalled a conversation she once had in Europe, when someone asked her which Cuba she was from — Fidel's Cuba or Miami's Cuba? She says that question helped wake her up.
"There is only one of us," she said. "Don't let them continue to separate us."
To her Cuban-American audience, Sanchez said, "We need you for the present Cuba and for the future Cuba."
Sanchez talked about the Berlin Wall, and the inspiration she felt when the wall came down. The Castro regime, she said, uses another wall to separate Cuba.
"Help us to unify her," she said, "to tear down this wall that, unlike the one in Berlin, is not made of concrete or bricks but of lies, silence and bad intentions."
Debate Over The U.S. Embargo
Sanchez received keys to the city and the county and, perhaps most telling, a commendation from the Cuban Liberty Council, a hard-line group that opposes any moves to weaken the 50-year-old embargo.
Sanchez addressed her position on the embargo — that it should be lifted.
"When people ask me about democratic rights," she said, "they always ask about the embargo. And I tell them there are much more important things."
The Castro government, Sanchez said, blames all of its problems on the embargo and uses it to divide Cubans and the exile community.
Outside the hall, Abelardo Rodriguez said he has supported the embargo for many years, but that maybe Sanchez is right: It may be better to lift it. But some Cuban-Americans who support the embargo, he noted, also embrace Sanchez.
"Maybe we're maturing," Rodriguez said. "Maybe Cubans in Miami are getting mature. What can I tell you?"
Sanchez was asked if, when she returns home and resumes blogging from the island, she will fear for her safety and that of her husband and son. She said she's tired of fear. I will live my life, she said, with the freedom I want.