Cuba’s Yoani Sánchez: What to Make of the Dissident’s World Tour

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JOE SKIPPER / REUTERS

Yoani Sanchez, the best-known dissident blogger from Cuba, reacts to applause before speaking at the Freedom Tower in Miami, Fla., April 1, 2013.

By all accounts, the world tour of Cuban dissident Yoani Sánchez, which shifts today from the U.S. to Europe, has so far proven a Buena Vista Social Club-caliber success. For those weary of the feckless, half-century-long screaming match between left-wingers and right-wingers over Cuba policy, Sánchez’s spring excursion has brought a welcome breath of reason.

She has parried every thrust from the Che Guevara T-shirt crowd who show up to denounce her for daring suggest that her communist island isn’t the people’s paradise. (She acknowledged, for example, that Cubans get free education and health care, but she pointed out that while caged birds get free water, they’re still caged.) Just as impressively, she seems to have charmed the Cuban-American hardliners on Capitol Hill and in Miami, who didn’t have missile crisis-grade meltdowns when she reiterated her opinion that the U.S. should drop its failed 51-year-old trade embargo against Cuba, and let Americans travel there again, so as not to let the Castro regime use such measures as excuses for its political repression and economic ineptitude. This week, an ebullient Sánchez tweeted that the opportunity to finally engage the world face-to-face instead of just in cyberspace was letting her “live the days of my dreams…Days that change your life!”

(MORE: Cuban Dissident Blogger Visits White House)

But will these days do anything to change Cuba? Much was made earlier this year of Cuban President Raúl Castro’s decision to drop the regime’s harsh travel restrictions and let even dissidents like Sánchez, 37, internationally famous for her Generación Y blog, go freely abroad—and, just as important, freely come back. Yet like every change made under Castro, 81, and like every change made under his older brother and former President Fidel Castro, 86, the travel reform was as calculated as it was momentous. Some find it remarkable watching Cuba’s leading dissenter criticize the Castro dictatorship from Miami to Madrid, but Havana wouldn’t have given her an exit visa if it didn’t think it might get something out of this too—namely, an argument with which to blunt the very criticism she’s leveling. If things are still so oppressive back here on this side of the Florida Straits, Rául now asks, why did we let this woman fly out to receive your bourgeois human rights prizes and cast aspersions on our revolution?

That’s certainly not to suggest that Sánchez is letting herself be used by the Castros any more than she’s being used by their enemies. Sánchez’s credibility and effectiveness reside largely in her refusal to be co-opted by either side—as was the case with the late Oswaldo Payá, the dissident leader whose torch passed to Sánchez and her social media savvy last year when he was killed in a car accident in Cuba. Make no mistake, I’ve often seen firsthand how the mere mention of Sánchez’s name makes Cuban officials break into cold, angry sweats—as TIME’s Latin American bureau chief in the 2000s, I became persona non grata in Havana when we included her on the magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people—because they fear that her blogosphere activism could become less controllable than Payá’s more conventional movement was.

(MORE: Oswaldo Paya: Requiem for a Cuban dissident.)

But Payá’s demise is simply another reminder of why Raúl may not mind Yoani’s road show as much as we assume. Payá’s family alleges his death involved foul play, even though little if any real evidence has surfaced to back that charge. But either way, Sánchez’s global speaking engagements, for all the bleak and iron-fisted picture they paint of the Castros, lend the dictatorship a more lenient face that it hopes will help soften international scrutiny of its dismal human rights record.

And yet, Yoani’s excellent adventure could still backfire on Havana. Speaking at Miami’s Freedom Tower this week, Sánchez implored her mostly Cuban-American audience to cease thinking of Cubans in terms of “you [here] and us [there]. There is only us.” It’s a message they embraced—and, says Tomás Bilbao, director of the Cuba Study Group and one of the coordinators of Sánchez’s U.S. visit, it can still be a scary message for Cuba’s leadership. “The Cuban government calculates there will be little domestic political cost to pay for letting Yoani travel and speak abroad,” says Bilbao, who also believes it’s time to drop the embargo. “But they may underestimate the effects of increased contact between the U.S. and Cuba that her visit has promoted, how she’s breaking down barriers” between the two countries that the Cuban regime has so often relied on to keep its hold on power (and which, at least in my view, the hardline Cuban exile leadership has too often promoted to maintain its own political influence here).

Other Cubans are bound to take notice of that less antagonistic landscape when they themselves visit the U.S. under Raúl’s travel reforms (which he decreed in part to help bring badly needed hard currency to the island). And they are less likely as a result to be as tolerant of their island’s economic and human rights deprivations when they return. Sánchez, who has been harassed, detained and even beaten up in Cuba for her independent journalism, says she still expects pariah treatment when she goes back; but Havana might (granted, a big might) decide that persecuting dissidents now carries a potential domestic as well as international cost. Chances are, while her life-changing spring tour won’t produce a Cuban Spring any time soon, it could turn out to be more of a country-changing excursion than either she or the Castros anticipated.

MORE: Lessons in Socialism: How Cuba Can Become Relevant Again

18 comments
HenryPollack
HenryPollack

Fidel Castro converted a nation with a higher per capita income than half of Europe, the lowest inflation rate in the Western hemisphere, a larger middle class than Switzerland, a huge influx of immigrants and whose workers enjoyed the 8th highest industrial wages in the world into one that repels Haitians. And this after being lavished with Soviet subsidies that totaled almost ten Marshall Plans (into a nation of 7 million) - an economic feat that defies not only the laws of economics but seemingly the very laws of physics.

canamjay
canamjay

this article and the issues behind it, are so obscure.. and so tangled up in opposing points of view... I don't know just what it is trying to convey...  surely, I have not become so dense... or anybody else have the similar problem with this??

JamesF2013
JamesF2013

I have read all Che's essays, and understand what he was trying to prevent. He was trying to prevent the imperialism of the US from ruining his country, and the world. He was a hero, no doubt. Now this woman is trying to ruin all that he did by in fact letting the US in the country. I think both parties are truly flawed. Castro, and this woman. There needs to be an agreement with the US and Cuba. All the people want is fair and equal ground between the countries. Che's anti imperialism vs the US model of take over and exploit will never work. Both ideas are flawed from the root. This is a different paradigm, these ideas should have died with the men who thought them up.

chediego66
chediego66

"Little if any real evidence" that Oswaldo Payá was killed by the Cuban government?!?! Tim Padgett, where have you been the last several months? You need to wake up and do some real reporting.

The driver of Payá's vehicle (Angel Carromero), now that he's safely out of Cuba, has described in detail how the were followed, rammed repeatedly, and run off the road by government agents. He sent out text messages to friends back home in Spain, in real time, telling them they'd been rammed by Cuban plainclothesmen -- before they took away his phone. He has also told how he was drugged for days, kept incommunicado, threatened with life in Cuban prisons or worse, and coerced into making a false confession of reckless driving. Standard operating procedure for the Castro regime since they came into power. Sadly, pretty standard gullibility for weak Western reporters too.

Tim Padgett, if you have reason to call into question Carromero's eyewitness account, you should say so. But to claim there's little or no evidence of foul play is a fraud on your readers, and journalistic malpractice to boot.

carlosd521
carlosd521

Cubafaq:

You're entitled to an opinion and voicing it is not a crime. But character assassination is different, it is ill intended and leads to defamation lawsuit. If you have proof, bring it to the open, convince the world that you know something that we should all know.

Otherwise, show  yourself as a pro-Castro person and your intentions will be obvious.

Put your money where your mouth is.

carlosd521
carlosd521

Carlos Finlay and Cubafaq:

Thanks to God that we live in a free society and I will defend you both for your rights to state your opinion, even if we disagree. But are you willing to recognize what's missing in Cuba?, the same right you have here, you wouldn't have it in Cuba if you chose to disagree with the government. 

For your information, I'm a social-democrat, a left-winger, an anomaly among cuban exiles.

Carlos Finlay is not a real person, if you truly are a Sanchez-Parodi as you stated, then you are part of the Castro regime, either writing from cuba as a privileged person with access to internet or enjoying the freedoms of the USA, which your master denies to 11million people.

Carlos Finaly discovered that a mosquito transmitted the virus of yellow fever , the Aedes Aegypti. Yes, the US imperialist , in their quest for territories, invaded Cuba . They were kicked out in 1959, by a tyrant, Fidel Castro. Since then, Cuba is his private fiefdom . He then sold it to the USSR so he could eternally be protected from the US. Smart move for cubans, from one master to another.

Why you don't see that.... is beyond reason.

Carlos

cubafaq
cubafaq

@carlosd521 What is your point? That we must not question the motives of this professional "dissident" or what she says?

cubafaq
cubafaq like.author.displayName 1 Like

Sanchez showed at times just how out of touch she is with her fellow Cubans. With her money, she seems quite willing to see the unravelling of the crowning achievements of the Revolution -- free health care (with the best infant mortality rate in the Americas) and free education --in exchange for a coupon for a Big Mac and fries. Is it any wonder that she and her US-backed fellow "dissidents" are getting nowhere in Cuba? 

She is also at odds with the overwhelming majority of here fellow Cubans, nearly every delegate to the UN General Assembly and groups like Amnesty International when she suggests that the US embargo only an "excuse." Amnesty International has called these cruel and inhumane sanctions illegal and immoral and has repeatedly called for them to be lifted immediately and unconditionally (AI website). For twenty years in a row now, the UN General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly to condemn these sanctions. In November, only Israel, who trades freely with Cuba anyway, and the tiny US island-colony of Palau (pop. 21,000) voted with the US against the resolution.

HenryPollack
HenryPollack

Particularly fascinating was to discover how authoritarian but relatively benevolent Cuban President Fulgencio Batista ran the country that was before Castro seized power in 1959 the most successful nation socio-economically in Latin America. Under Batista hundreds of thousands of Spaniards and Cuba took in more than 1 million Spanish immigrants. Cuba had the highest literacy rate in Latin America and the 9th highest standard of living in the world. Cuba in 1958 had twice Spain's per capita income!
And under Castroite Cuba: In 1986 (after 27 years of Castro's rule)reached 24 per thousand , triple the average of Latin America. Cuban women are now the most suicidal in the world and Cuba has the highest abortion rate in the world. Havana has now overtaken Bangkok as the world capital of the child sex industry-if anything marks how we should judge a nation it should be on the welfare of its children.


freeCU
freeCU

@cubafaqWhere are you from? have you ever been in a Cuban hospital, I hope someday you taste that as a Cuban. The mortality rate, who offers those numbers? Who verifies that is true? I only wish your sons would go to that "free education". I am Cuban, I live in Canada now, my daughter couldn't be happier in her new school, where you can say your opinion and don't have to repeat the "official" opinion all the time. Yoani speaks for me and my generation, nobody wants the US in Cuba, we just want Cuba without the Communist Party.

CarlosFinlay
CarlosFinlay like.author.displayName 1 Like

Thanks Carlos.  You seem to exemplify the virulence of Miami.  Thank God for the other 11 million Cubans.  By the way, Finlay's discovery was upstaged by the American media with all the credit to Walter Reed, mind you while Cuba was occupied by US troops so I doubt there will be much Finlay  grave turning.   I guess you seem to long for the days of US occupation.  For me I think US policy toward Cuba these past 100 years stinks and goes against all the fundamental values of fairness and justice of this country.


CarlosFinlay
CarlosFinlay like.author.displayName 1 Like

What success, Yoani is promoted by the US media and those outside receiving money form USAID anti-Cuban program.  She seems to revel in the attention given by the anti-Cuban elements in Congress and Miami, the same people that have been advocating policy against the Cuban people.  Hardly known in Cuba and elsewhere, Time magazine named her one of the most influential people on the year.  One can learn as many have about life in Cuba by just visiting with the Cuban people and not in her contrived blog.  Yoani's only success has been as a tool of US anti-Cuban propaganda.  Milton Sanchez-Parodi

carlosd521
carlosd521

@CarlosFinlay  

Milton, Carlos J Finlay, the image of  the cuban doctor that discovered how malaria was transmitted, and you use his image, most probably is turning  in his grave because you blemish his image with your comments on a defenseless woman, Sanchez Parodi is the last name of a former cuban representative for the Cuba Interest Section in Washington DC.

What an honor for Yoani to be attacked by Castro thugs. Shame on you. But history will catch up to Castro and his likes, you.

carlosd521
carlosd521

Excellent observations, but I wonder if a peaceful evolution will take place in Cuba or if persecution will lead to a bloody civil confrontation.

The cat is out of the cat.

Carlos Delgado, Miami USA