Cuban blogger and dissident Yoani Sanchez was the guest of the United Nations Correspondents Association this week.
The visit was part of Sanchez’s world tour now that exit visas are no longer required to travel outside the country.
But just because the exit visa law was changed does not mean the Cuban government has changed its views about dissidents.
In just about every country Sanchez visited, pro-Cuban forces showed up calling her a tool or mercenary of the United States. In Brazil, she was not able to view a film about her and other dissidents because of the demonstrations. At least Yoani saw the demonstrations for what they were: examples of people exercising their democratic rights to demonstrate for or against a particular point of view. Of course, the irony of the situation was lost on the pro-Cuba demonstrators. They would never have been able to mount similar demonstrations against a Cuban policy in Cuba.
Cuban diplomats around the world were always suspected of being behind demonstrations. (The themes were universal around the world and the props were all the same. Too much uniformity for “spontaneous” demonstrations of “outrage” against Sanchez.) Finally, in New York, the Cuban government came out from behind the curtain.
The UNCA sponsored a press conference for Sanchez in the United Nations building, something that is pretty common.
Cuban Ambassador Rodolfo Reyes sent a letter to the U.N. Secretary General complaining the news conference would be “an anti-Cuban action” and a “grave attack” on the spirit of the United Nations. (He did not mention how dictatorships, such as Cuba’s, are also an attack on the spirit of the United Nations.) The ambassador continued that the U.N. should “not allow that the organization’s spaces to be tarnished and their use manipulated by spurious interests.”
Sanchez responded simply that it was time for the United Nations to “come out of its lethargy and recognize that the Cuban government is a dictatorship.”
“If this meeting was being held in the bottom of an elevator shaft, we would have more freedom than in Cuba,” she added. “I am proud that my first time in this very significant U.N. building is with my journalism colleagues.”
It is a pity that the Sanchez world tour — hell, even the U.S portion — is getting so little coverage by U.S. media. The exceptions are The Miami Herald (duh!) and Fox News Latino (double duh!). There are the occasional wire stories — as in McClatchy story linked above — but other than that, the presence of one of the most powerful and rational voices against the Cuban dictatorship is moving through Washington and New York with little attention by the mainstream press.
Why is her visit important?
To begin with Sanchez could only leave once Cuba repealed the exit visa requirement. That requirement alone should tell people more about what Cuba was and is than anything else. Only dictatorships require exit visas of its people. The fact that the Cuban government eliminated the exit requirement is a story about changes taking place in that country.
While the exit visa requirement removal is a big deal, the increased repression of freedom of expression activists in Cuba is also news. More people can leave (if they can get a passport, another problem), but only if they are not in jail or under indictment for “activities against the state.”
Freedom of expression is still stifled:
- Committee to Protect Journalists: Though Cuba projected an image of a nation opening up economically and politically, it took no substantive steps to promote freedom of expression.
- Freedom House: Cuba has the most restrictive laws on free speech and press freedom in the Americas. The constitution prohibits private ownership of media outlets and allows free speech and journalism only if they “conform to the aims of a socialist society.”
- Human Rights Watch: Cuba remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent.
- Amnesty International: The Cuban authorities continued to stifle freedom of expression, association and assembly, in spite of the much publicized releases of prominent dissidents. Hundreds of pro-democracy activists and dissidents suffered harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrest.
What does this mean to the average person in the United States?
For too many people in the U.S. population (and in Congress) the only Latin American countries worth noting are Cuba and Mexico, and Mexico often comes in as a second thought.
Irrational and emotional arguments are a dime a dozen when dealing with Cuba. Finally, there is a rational voice from Cuba that is highly critical of the Cuban government allowed to travel and she gets little or no coverage — again, with the exception of the Miami Herald.
The Herald sees the immediate connection between the Sanchez tour and its audience. But where are the stories from the New Jersey/New York papers? The second largest Cuban population in the United States is in New Jersey.
Apologists for Cuba (and Venezuela and Ecuador) will not want to hear what Sanchez has to say, nor will they agree with it. Likewise, the rabid right-wing anti-Castro crowd will have difficulties with some of what Sanchez is saying — other than her unwavering belief in freedom of expression and democracy. Too many of the older anti-Castro group are hung up on returning property taken in the 1959 revolution. The issues are different now and many younger Cuban Americans know that. The anti-Castro lobby in Congress has not yet seemed to catch up.
It would be nice to see some stories of Cuban immigrants in the United States about how they got into the country, why the came and what they see as their future and the future of Cuba. I have talked with younger Cuban immigrants. They came to the States for the same reason most immigrants come: freedom and a better life. They are not from the elite families of the old dictatorship looking to return to power. They are immigrants, pure and simple.
Yes, they have opinions about the changes that should be made in Cuba — after all they still have family there. But if reporters took a few minutes to think about it, the stories of the 21st century immigrants will be different from those of the mid-20th century.
And once their stories are heard, then more people will stop thinking about Cuba and relations with Cuba with a Cold War mentality. They might even start looking at Cuba the same way the look at China, another brutal dictatorship that is famous for repression of freedom of speech and press, but with whom the U.S. is more than happy to deal with on the international scene.