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Thor Halvorssen

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Yoani Sánchez Forbidden by Cuba to Collect Her Award; CEPOS Freedom Prize Presented in Absentia

Posted: 05/05/11 04:38 PM ET

COPENHAGEN -- Tonight, Yoani Sánchez -- the world-renowned Cuban blogger and philologist -- will be honored here with the inaugural Freedom Award, in the amount of $50,000, by the independent Danish think tank, CEPOS. Human rights defenders, members of the Danish parliament, prominent Cuban exiles, and members of the international media will be in attendance at the ceremony.

But there's one oddity: Yoani will not be there.

Yoani is in an enormous prison -- the island of Cuba -- forbidden to leave her country to accept the award.

I was at the Royal Palace in Holland on December 17, 2010, when Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands presented Yoani with the Prince Claus Award for her role as a "leading figure in the use of social networking technologies to breach imposed frontiers in Cuba." Again, Yoani was not there. The hall where the ceremony took place was cold and the chill was unbearable in the silence when her nonattendance was noted. Instead, a video of Yoani, filmed in Havana and smuggled out of Cuba by one of my colleagues at the Oslo Freedom Forum, was played in her absence.

Through her blog, Yoani provides a window into the brutal reality of life in Cuba. Her elegant and astute criticism of the totalitarian state earned her the 2008 Ortega y Gasset Prize for Journalism and the 2009 Maria Moors Cabot Prize. She was named one of TIME magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World" in 2008, and was selected as a 2010 World Press Freedom Hero by the International Press Institute.

CEPOS could not have selected a more deserving individual to receive this prize. (Full disclosure: I nominated her on the basis of her courageous work.) Yoani is an extraordinary woman who has repeatedly overcome great obstacles and risked serious consequences to make her voice heard, as she struggles against a dictatorship that systematically represses freedom of expression. Yoani has been beaten and kidnapped by plainclothes state security agents for her work.

She lives every day in a world where ordinary citizens cannot invite their friends over, or hold any kind of meeting, for fear of being accused of subversion. Cubans cannot even host something as innocuous as a book club. Few of them even own books -- leading to the creation of underground "independent" libraries which risk prosecution and prison for such a subversive acts as owning a copy of a banned novel or history book.

Cuba's woes are routinely attributed to the U.S. trade embargo. But anyone visiting Cuba can buy Chilean wines, Spanish ham, French cheese, and Italian pasta. Visitors can also find American goods exempt from the trade ban (which applies to U.S. companies). The embargo is an ongoing propaganda weapon -- wielded by the Castro regime and by its international ideological allies--used to blame everything that happens in Cuba on an external enemy, rather than the true source of its misery: the 52-year dictatorship that has ruled the island with an iron fist and wants to maintain power at all costs.

When I was last in Cuba, I was appalled by the level of poverty: overcrowded houses jury-rigged with makeshift additional floors a mere three feet in height, teenagers selling themselves for sex because their ration books are grossly inadequate, malnourished children in the streets with swollen bellies. The list goes on.

Anyone who doubts the misery of life for Cuba should visit Havana, talk to the local population, tour a hospital (a real one -- not those reserved for foreigners), and witness the ghastly horror that is the much vaunted Cuban health care system.

Cuba is a place where you cannot own your own home; you cannot move without permission from the government; property rights do not exist (your stuff isn't yours); you aren't allowed to switch jobs without government permission; and most jarring: you cannot leave the country without the government's authorization. I draw the line between the free and unfree world if you cannot vote with your feet and get out. Those who try often end up drowning after days on a raft in the ocean.

Those who wish to see a disparity between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, should visit the areas where the overwhelming majority of the population lives and then take a taxi to the neighborhoods where the Castros and their henchmen live. It is a contrast that few anti-poverty activists can even fathom. Even more shocking is the material dissimilarity between rural areas and Havana.

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The reason the Castro brothers are still the wardens of eight million people and the owners of everything on that island is because democratic societies -- like Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Norway, France, and Italy -- treat Cuba as a member of a happy family of nations, rather than treating Cuba's rulers like they do the criminals that run North Korea, Burma, or Sudan.

Cuba's totalitarianism would not survive without the support of the world's democracies. If those same governments gave their support to outspoken and independent voices like Yoani Sánchez, Cuba would be on the road from serfdom to freedom. For now, civil societies like CEPOS serve the cause of liberty by shining a light in the darkness.

Thor Halvorssen is president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation and founder and CEO of the Oslo Freedom Forum. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.