Yoani Sánchez finally came to the CATO Institute in Washington, DC, on March 19, 2013.
I had the option of watching her speech from my office computer through a live feed, or attending in person. Convenience versus walking approximately seven blocks. Decisions, decisions, decisions!
I opted to see her in person. It did help that it was a lovely spring day today. I wanted to see her body language, her facial expressions, how she looked from up close.
I was ambivalent about what she stood for. I had heard some of my Cuban-American friends criticize her postures harshly, while others praised her as a true Cuban patriot. I was confused, and I wanted to find out for myself. This was the first time that the Cuban Government allowed Yoani to travel to the United States, and this could be the last time that she’d be allowed to exit her homeland. I’ve been around long enough to realize that when an opportunity presents itself, you must seize it. So, I did!
First, a sample of those in attendance. Arturo López-Levy from the University of Denver. Wayne Smith, second Chief of Mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979-1982 under President Jimmy Carter. Writer/Film Maker Agustin Blazquez. Dr. Enrique Pumar, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at the Catholic University of America. Alicia Diaz, Director, Legislative Policy & Government Relations, Washington, DC Office of the Cuban American National Council.
And, then, it was time for Yoani to address the crowd. Her demeanor was unassuming. Her humbleness covered up a steel personality that had stood up to power in the past and paid a stiff price for doing so. Her speaking voice was well modulated. Her vocabulary, precise. Her eye contact with the audience was great. She spoke extemporaneously, without relying on any notes.
Yoani indicated that there is a mainly youth movement in Cuba lately that relies on online technology to circumvent the Cuban Government monopoly over information flow. Cubans can puncture holes in the wall of censorship by relying on mobile phones, blogs, and twitter accounts. If American songwriter and performer Sam Cooke were around today, he would be singing “A Change Is Gonna Come” to Cuba soon.
Yoani acknowledged that she was not under any illusions that reliance on online technology was sufficient to topple the Cuban totalitarian regime. But she was certain that it played an important role in the democratization of her homeland. The use of non-violence and civil disobedience was foreign to a government that had relied on repudiation brigades to instill fear on its citizens. This explains why the Raul Castro Government had sparked a vicious response to this new movement.
But, wait a second! While Yoani’s remarks were highly informational and enlightening, she failed to address the topic that I was most interested in. It is a controversial topic, but one that I thought that she had to address. What is it? But, of course, the keeping or lifting of the embargo that the United States has maintained over Cuba for over fifty years.
So, considering that I had used the 6-P’s Philosophy (Proper Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance) by sitting on the first row, I got a chance to ask the first question. I opted to ask my question first in English, but I translated it into Spanish because I wanted to communicate directly “de cubano a cubana.” I started by pointing out that prominent Cuban dissidents like Dr. Oscar Biscet, Berta Soler (current leader of the Ladies in White), Dr. Guillermo Fariñas, and Jose Daniel Ferrer had lobbied for the maintenance of the U.S. embargo against Cuba. They argued that lifting the embargo would give more oxygen to the repressive apparatus. I mentioned that I had read recently that Yoani favored the lifting of the U.S. embargo, but I realized that media outlets often took one’s comments out of context. Therefore, I asked Yoani to set the record straight on this matter.
She responded that the Cuban dissident movement was not monolithic in its viewpoints. While they all shared the common goal of restoring democracy to Cuba, they had diverse views on issues like the U.S. embargo. She favored the lifting of the embargo because the Cuban Government had used it as an excuse for the manifest failures of its oppressive communist system.
Another attendee asked what else was needed to bring about a democratic transition to Cuba. Yoani responded that the main ingredient would have to be for Cubans to lose their fear. As long as the great majority of Cubans embraced a “what’s in it for me” mindset, Cuba would not be free.
When asked how would the death of Hugo Chavez impact the Cuban society, she indicated that most Cuban feared a return to the special period when Cuba plunged into a severe recession after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s.
Yoani expects more harassment when she returns to Cuba, but she thinks that this trip will serve as a shield because of the notoriety that she’s gained overseas. She would like to devote her life to making others uncomfortable as a journalist in today’s Cuba and in a future Cuba. Upon her return to Cuba, she would like to set up an independent digital newspaper.
She concluded her remarks by mentioning that during the last five years, she had applied twenty times to travel outside Cuba, and her requests had been denied twenty times. Only after the 2013 immigration policies was she allowed to travel overseas. But she explained that the new immigration policies were not what the Cubans had hoped for because they excluded political prisoners from the 2003 Black Spring Crackdown who opted to remain in Cuba – like Dr. Oscar Biscet. Yoani speculated that the Cuban authorities had granted her a passport to travel abroad because they hoped that she would not go back. And even if she went back, they hoped that she would be intimidated by subjecting her to violent repudiation rallies by pro-government mobs. But she said that she would not be intimidated, she would not be silenced, and she vowed to continue exposing the abuses of the Cuban Government through the online media outlets.
At the end of the day, I learned to agree to disagree with Yoani regarding the U.S. embargo. I did not convince her, and she did not convince me on this matter. However, I appreciate all that Yoani has done to expose the repression that the Cuban Government has subjected the Cuban population for the last fifty-four years.
I agree that it is impossible to bring about uniformity of thought in a coalition to topple the Cuban totalitarian regime. As long as we share one goal in common – to restore democracy to Cuba – we can become brothers and sisters in a fight for a just cause.