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

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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.

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