Yoani Sanchez may be the world’s best known Cuban dissident. Her blog and Twitter feed criticizing the Cuban government have won her followers and plaudits throughout the United States and Europe, and her first trip outside of Cuba was widely anticipated after the government of Raul Castro liberalized travel rules.
What perhaps wasn’t anticipated was just how controversial that trip would become.
When she arrived at airports in the Brazilian cities of Recife and Salvador earlier this week, she was jeered by leftists carrying signs accusing her of being “financed by the CIA” and being an “anti-Cuban mercenary.”
At a festival where she was supposed to take part in the showing of a documentary film, the protests forced organizers to scrap the plan. By her second day in Brazil, local news reports said, she’d been assigned an escort of 14 military police officers, including several who were under cover.
Yet it’s what she’s had to say as the world’s best known critic of the Castro regime that was the most controversial, at least in the United States. She’s urged the end of the U.S. government’s trade embargo against her homeland, calling it a failure. She’s offered praise, if only faint, for Raul Castro.
“There’s a big difference between Raul and Fidel,” she said. An example: the change in the country’s travel rules that allowed her to leave Cuba without an exit permit.
That, she said, “would have been unthinkable under Fidel. He wanted to control every aspect of our life. Raul is more conscious of that being impossible.”
On Thursday, she campaigned to be seen as a moderate critic of her country’s government before a supportive audience of some 250 Brazilians in this huge financial center. The talk was organized by one of Brazil’s main newspapers, O Estado do S. Paulo, which also runs her syndicated column. They gave her a standing ovation upon arrival.
In turn, she seemed intent on turning down the volume. “I’ve spoken a lot in Brazil,” she said, “so I’m going to speak slower and lower my tone.”
Her enthusiasm for Raul Castro’s reforms was tempered. “The reforms are going the right direction but are very slow and not very deep,” she said.
She was critical of changes in real estate law that allow people to buy and sell their residences. The result, she said, is a Cuban-style gentrification, with wealthy people moving into certain neighborhoods and “uprooting the poor.”
She blasted as “totally false” the Cuban government’s claim that in excess of 20 percent of Cubans have Internet access. The real number, she said, was more like 3 percent.
She also said the reforms Raul Castro was introducing really just brought to the surface how society already worked.
“You’ll start to notice what always existed,” she said. “Raul has a tendency to just legalize what was already happening.”
She called being forced to pick between loyalty to the Castro government or hard-line views represented by some Cuban exiles as a false choice. She said she was a different type of dissident, more moderate. There were many others like her, she said, who would play a key role in a post-Castro transition.
She repeatedly said she did not think the old paradigms worked.
“When I was in Germany, I met a Cuban who asked me what kind of Cuban I was – of Fidel or of Miami. I thought that was an insult,” she said.
“Cuban exiles don’t just live in Miami. They live all over the world. One has to start to break down some of these myths.”
Yet she said she understood the origins of some of those who support the trade embargo. “One has to recognize the pain of historic exile,” she said, noting that many had property confiscated. “One has to respect that pain and look for an equilibrium. One also has to recognize the lack of rights Cuban exiles have.”
But she was unmoved on her view that the embargo should be lifted, and she repeated the sentiments she expressed Wednesday before members of the Brazilian congress in Brasilia: “As a method of pressure, it is a failure.”
It has been a theme throughout the week. In Bahia, she called the embargo “a fossil of the Cold War that does not have any sense in the modern world in which we live.”
She added that its existence gave the Cuban government “the best argument . . . to explain its ineffective economy.”
“On my dinner plate, there are not any tomatoes and there are not any potatoes,” she said, “and it’s not because of the embargo.”
Brazilian publisher Editora Contexto paid for much of Sanchez’s Brazilian trip, according to Roberto Lameirinhas, O Estado’s international editor. In Sao Paulo, she stayed at the house of Editora Contexto’s Jaime Pinksy, Lameirinhas said.