Yoani Sanchez Interviewed in CubaApril 29, 2010 | Print |
HAVANA TIMES, April 28 — Yoani Sanchez is without a doubt the most well known Cuban blogger outside of Cuba and while her blog is censured on the island there are a growing number of people who have read some of her entries, be it from CDs, memory sticks or e-mail.
HT was granted permission to run an author-authorized translation of a lengthy interview with Sanchez by Salim Lamrani, first published on the rebelion.org website in Spanish.
Sanchez was not pleased with the text of the interview claiming that it was manipulated by Lamrani. In a post titled “The Other Interview” on her website Generation Y she gives her perspective on the interview. If Yoani wishes to add some specifics to her post we would be glad to publish them.
CONVERSATIONS WITH CUBAN BLOGGER YOANI SANCHEZ
Yoani Sanchez is the new face of the Cuban opposition. Since the creation of her blog Generation Y in 2007, she has won numerous international awards: The Ortega y Gasset Journalism Award (2008), the Bitacoras.com award (2008), The Bob’s Award (2008), and the Maria Moors Cabot Award (2008) from the prestigious Columbia University in the United States. Similarly, the blogger was named among the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine (2008), along with George W. Bush, Hu Jintao and the Dalai Lama. Her blog was included in the CNN and Time magazine list of the top 25 blogs in the world (2008). On November 30, 2008 the Spanish newspaper El Pais included her in the year’s top 100 most influential Latin American personalities (a list which did not include Fidel Castro or Raul Castro.) Foreign Policy magazine, for its part, included her among the 10 most important intellectuals of the year and the Mexican magazine Gato Pardo did the same in 2008.
This impressive avalanche of awards received simultaneously has raised many questions, especially since Yoani Sanchez, according to her own words, is totally unknown in her own country. How does a person unknown to her neighbors- according to the blogger herself- come to be included on the list of the year’s 100 most influential personalities?
A Western diplomat, who is close to this atypical opponent to the government of Havana, read a series of articles I wrote about Yoani Sánchez that were relatively critical and showed them to the Cuban blogger. She wanted to meet with me to clarify some points I had made.
The encounter with the famous young dissident in question did not take place in a dark apartment with closed windows or in an isolated, inmate place away from the prying ears of the “political police.” On the contrary, it occurred in the lobby of the Hotel Plaza in the center of Old Havana on a sun-drenched afternoon. The place was crowded, with many foreign tourists wandering through the immense lobby of the majestic building that opened its doors in the early twentieth century.
Yoani Sanchez has a close with the Western embassies. Indeed, a single call from my contact at noon allowed me to set up an appointment for three hours later. At 3pm, the blogger appeared smiling, wearing a long skirt and a blue shirt. She wore a sport coat to protect her from the relative coolness of winter in Havana.
The conversation lasted about two hours around a table in the hotel bar. Her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, accompanied her for about twenty minutes before leaving to go to another appointment. Yoani Sanchez was extremely cordial and friendly and appeared quite calm. Her tone of voice was sure and at no time did she appear uncomfortable. Accustomed to the Western media, she is fairly well versed in the art of communication.
This blogger, fragile in appearance, intelligent and wise, is aware that, although difficult for her to admit, her media coverage in the West is not a coincidence, but is due to the fact that she advocates the creation of “sui generis capitalism” in Cuba.
The incident of November 6, 2009
Salim Lamrani: Let’s start with the incident that occurred on November 6, 2009 in Havana. In your blog, you said you and three friends were detained by “three burly strangers” during an “afternoon full of blows, shouts and insults.” You denounced the violence that Cuban law enforcement committed against you. Are you sure of your version of those events?
Yoani Sanchez: Yes, I confirm that I suffered violence. They kidnapped me for 25 minutes. I received blows. I managed to take a piece of paper out of the pocket of one of them and put it in my mouth. One put his knee on my chest and the other, from the front seat, hit me in the area of the kidneys and the head trying to make me open my mouth and drop the paper. At one point, I felt I would never leave that car.
SL: The story on your blog is truly terrifying. I quote: You spoke of “blows and punches”, of “raps on the knuckles”, of a “flurry of blows”, of a “knee on [your] chest”, of blows to “the kidneys and […] the head, of “hair pulling” and your “face reddened by the pressure and [an] aching body” from “the blows [that] continued to fall” and “all the bruises.” However, when you received the international press on November 9, all marks were gone. How do you explain that?
YS: They are professionals.
SL: Ok, but why didn’t you take pictures of the marks?
YS: I have photos. I have photographic evidence.
SL: You have photographic evidence?
YS: I have photographic evidence.
SL: But, why haven’t you published the photos in order to squelch all the rumors that you invented this aggression to gain press attention?
YS: For now I’d rather save them and not publish them. I want to present them in court one day so that those three men can be judged. I remember their faces vividly and I have photos of at least two of them. The third is still not identified but since he was the boss, it will be easy to pinpoint him. I also have the paper that I took from one of them and that has my saliva on it because it was in my mouth. On this paper is the name of a woman.
SL: Okay. You post many photos on your blog. We find it difficult to understand why you prefer not to show the marks at this time.
YS: As I said, I prefer to reserve them for court.
SL: You understand that this attitude is lending credibility to those who think you invented this story of aggression.
YS: It’s my choice.
SL: But even the Western media, which is quite favorable to you, took unusual oratorical precautions in telling your story. For example, the BBC correspondent in Havana Fernando Ravsberg wrote that you “had no bruises, marks or scars.” Agence France Presse carefully clarified that it was publishing your version of the story by using the title “Cuba: the blogger Yoani Sanchez says she was beaten and briefly detained.” That journalist also reported that you “were not hurt.”
YS: I don’t wish to evaluate their work. I’m not one to judge them. They are professionals who deal with very complicated situations that I can’t evaluate. The truth is that the presence or absence of physical marks is not evidence of the fact.
SL: But the presence of marks shows that an act of violence took place. Hence the importance of publishing the photos.
YS: You must understand that they are professionals of intimidation. The fact that three strangers would put me in a car without presenting any document gives me the right to complain just as if they had broken every bone in my body. The photos are not important because the crime has been committed. The accuracy of “I was hurt here or I was hurt there” is my inner pain.
SL: Yes, but the problem is that you presented this as a very violent assault. You spoke of “kidnapping in the worst Sicilian Camorra style.”
YS: Yes, that’s true. But I know it’s my word against theirs. By entering into such details, whether or not I have marks, distances us from the real issue, which is that I was kidnapped for 25 minutes in an illegal manner.
SL: I’m sorry but I think the emphasis is important. There is a difference between an identity check that lasts 25 minutes and police violence. My question is simple. You said, quote: “Throughout the weekend I had a swollen cheekbone and eyebrow.” Since you have photos, you can now show the markings.
YS: I told you. I’d rather save them for court.
SL: You understand that for some people it is difficult to believe your version if you do not publish the photos.
YS: I think to get into that kind of detail obscures the essence. The essence is that three bloggers, accompanied by a friend, were headed to the corner of Calle 23 and G. We had heard that a group of young people had called a march against violence. “Alternative” people, singers, hip hop and rap artists. I went there as a blogger to take pictures and publish them on my blog and get interviews. On the way we were intercepted by a Geely car.
SL: So that you couldn’t participate in this event?
YS: That was obviously the reason. They never told me officially, but that was the objective. They told me to get in the car. I asked them who they were. One of them took me by the wrist and I started to pull back. That happened in a very central area of Havana at a bus stop.
SL: So there were people. There were witnesses.
YS: There were witnesses but they didn’t want to talk. They’re afraid.
SL: Not even anonymously? Why hasn’t the Western media interviewed them anonymously as it often does when they publish critical reports on Cuba?
YS: I can not explain the reaction of the press. I can describe what happened. One of them, a man of about fifty, well built as if he had practiced wrestling at some point – I say that because my father practiced the sport and has the same features. I have very thin wrists and I managed to free myself and asked him who he was. There were three men besides the driver.
SL: So there were four men in total, not three.
YS: Yes, but I did not see the face of the driver. They said, “Yoani, hop in the car, you know who we are.” I replied: “I do not know who you are.” The shortest guy said, ‘Listen, you know who I am, you know me.” I replied: “No, I do not know who you are. I don’t know you. Who are you? Show me your papers or any documentation.” The other said, “Hop in, don’t make things harder.” Then I started screaming, “Help, kidnappers!”
SL: Did you know they were plain-clothes cops?
YS: I thought so, but nobody showed me documents.
SL: What was your objective then?
YS: I wanted things done by the book, that is, that they show me their papers and then take me, although I suspected that the represented the authorities. You can’t force a citizen into a private car without showing your identification. If it is not unlawful, it’s a kidnapping.
SL: How did the people at the bus stop react?
YS: The people at the bus stop were astonished because “kidnapping” is a word never used in Cuba; it doesn’t occur here. So they asked what was happening. We didn’t look like criminals. Some people approached but one of the policemen shouted: “Don’t get involved they are counterrevolutionaries!” That confirmed that they were political police, but I had figured as much because of the Geely they were driving, which is a newly manufactured Chinese model that is not sold in any shop in Cuba. They belong exclusively to the Ministry of the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Interior.
SL: So you knew from the beginning that they were policemen in civilian clothes by the car.
YS: I sensed that. On the other hand I had the confirmation when one of them called a policeman in uniform. A patrol car with a man and a woman came and took two of my friends. We were left in the hands of these two strangers.
SL: But by then you didn’t have the slightest doubt as to who they were.
YS: No, but they did not show us any documentation. The police did not tell us that they [in plain clothes] represented the authorities. We were not told anything.
SL: It is difficult to understand the Cuban authorities’ interest in physically assaulting you with the risk of unleashing an international scandal. You are famous. Why would they do that?
YS: Their objective was to radicalize me so that I would write violent texts against them, but they will not succeed.
SL: It cannot be said that you are soft on the Cuban government.
YS: I never use verbal violence or personal attacks. I never use incendiary adjectives as “bloody repression” for example. Their purpose was to radicalize me.
SL: But you are very hard on the Havana government. In your blog, you say: “the boat taking on water about to sink.” You mention “the cries of the tyrant” of “beings from the shadows that, like vampires, feed on our human happiness, inoculate us with fear through beatings, threats, blackmail,” “has shipwrecked the process, system, expectations, and illusions. [It is a total] Shipwreck” These are strong words.
YS: Maybe, but their goal was to taint the Yoani Sánchez phenomenon, to demonize me. That’s why my blog was blocked for so long.
SL: But it seems surprising that the Cuban authorities have decided to attack you physically.
YS: It was a blunder. I can’t explain why they prevented me from attending the march because I don’t think like the repressors. I have no explanation. Maybe they didn’t want me to meet with young people. The police thought I was going to cause a commotion or make an incendiary speech.
To return to the arrest, the police took my friends, strongly and firmly, but not violently. Before the police took them, at the moment I realized that they were going to leave me and Orlando alone with these three guys, I grabbed a plant that was on the street and Claudia grabbed me by the waist to prevent our separation.
SL: Why did you resist the police in uniform and risk being accused of committing a crime? In France if you resist the police, you risk penalties.
YS: They took them anyway. The police woman took Claudia. The three people took us to the car and I started to shout again: “Help! A kidnapping! ”
SL: Why? You knew they were out of uniform police.
YS: They didn’t show us any documentation. They begin to hit and push me into the car. Claudia was a witness and she has spoken of it.
SL: Didn’t you just tell me that the patrol had taken her?
YS: She saw the scene from afar as the police car drove away. I fought back and hit like an animal who feels that its final hour has come. They drove around Vedado and tried to get the paper out of my mouth. I grabbed one by the testicles and the violence increased. They took us to a rather marginal neighborhood, La Timbra, located near the Plaza of the Revolution. The man got out, opened the door and told us to get out. I didn’t want to get out. They forcefully got Orlando and me out of the car and drove off.
A woman approached and we told her that we had been abducted. She thought we were crazy and left. The car came back but it didn’t stop. They just threw out my purse which contained my cell phone and my camera.
SL: They came back to return your phone and your camera?
SL: Isn’t it strange that they bothered to come back? They could’ve confiscated the cell phone and camera, which are your tools.
YS: Well, I don’t know. The whole thing lasted 25 minutes in total.
SL: You understand, however, that as long as you don’t publish the photos, your story will be in doubt and that will cast a shadow over the credibility of everything you say.
YS: I don’t care.
Switzerland and the return to Cuba
SL: In 2002 you decided to emigrate to Switzerland. Two years later you returned to Cuba. It’s hard to understand why you left the “European paradise” to return to the country that you describe as hell. The question is simple: Why?
YS: It’s a very good question. First, I like to swim against the current. I like to organize my life in my way. Leaving and returning to Cuba is not absurd, what’s absurd is that Cuban immigration laws stipulate that anyone who spends eleven months abroad loses their permanent resident status. Under other circumstances I could spend two years abroad and, with the money I earned, I could return to Cuba and repair my house and do other things. Therefore it is not the fact that I decided to return to Cuba that is surprising, but rather the Cuban immigration law.
SL: What is surprising is that having the opportunity to live in one of the richest countries in the world, you decided to return to your country, which you describe in somewhat apocalyptic terms, just two years after your departure.
YS: There are several reasons. First, I couldn’t take my family. We are a small family but I am very close with my sister and my parents. My father was sick during my stay and I was afraid he would die without me being able to see him. I also felt guilty for living better than them. Every time I bought a pair of shoes or connected to the Internet, I thought of them. I felt guilty.
SL: Okay, but from Switzerland you could help them by sending money.
YS: Yeah, but there is another reason. I thought that with what I learned in Switzerland, I could come back and change things in Cuba. There was also the nostalgia I felt for the people, my friends. It was not an intentional decision, but I have no regrets. I wanted to come back, so I did. Yes, it may seem unusual, but I like to do unusual things. I opened a blog and people asked me why I did that. The blog satisfies me professionally.
SL: Okay, but despite all these reasons, it is difficult to understand why you returned to Cuba when the West thinks that all Cubans want to leave the country. It is even more surprising in your case since you describe the country, I repeat, in apocalyptic terms.
YS: I would dispute that word, as a philologist, because “apocalyptic” is a grandiloquent term. One thing that characterizes my blog is verbal moderation.
SL: That’s not always the case. For example, you described Cuba as “a huge prison, with ideological walls.” Those terms are quite strong.
YS: I have never written that.
SL: Those were your words in an interview with the French channel France 24 on October 22, 2009.
YS: Did you read that in French or Spanish?
SL: In French.
YS: Beware of translations. I have never said that. I frequently get credited for things I never said. For example, the Spanish newspaper ABC attributed to me words I never spoke, and I protested. The article was finally removed from their website
SL: What were those words?
YS: “In Cuban hospitals more people die of hunger than of disease.” It was a total lie. I never said that.
SL: So the Western media manipulated what you said?
YS: I didn’t say that.
SL: If words you never said are attributed to you, it is manipulation.
YS: Granma manipulates reality more than the Western media when they say that I am the creation of the Prisa media group.
SL: To be fair, don’t you have the impression that the Western media uses you because you advocate “sui generis capitalism” in Cuba?
YS: I am not responsible for what the press does. My blog is my personal therapy, an exorcism. I have the impression that I am more manipulated in my own country than elsewhere. You know that in Cuba there is a law, Act 88, called the “gag” law that imprisons people who do what we’re doing.
SL: Meaning what?
YS: That our conversation can be considered a crime and is punishable with up to 15 years in prison.
SL: Excuse me. Really, you could be jailed because I am interviewing you?
SL: You don’t seem to be very worried since you are giving me an interview in the middle of the afternoon in the lobby of a hotel in the heart of Old Havana.
YS: I’m not worried. This law stipulates that anyone who denounces human rights violations in Cuba is collaborating with economic sanctions, because Washington uses human rights violations to justify the imposition of sanctions against Cuba.
SL: If I understand correctly, Act 88 was passed in 1996 in response to the Helms-Burton Act and it specifically applies to those who collaborate with the implementation of that legislation in Cuba, for example, by providing information to Washington on foreign investors in Cuba so that they can be prosecuted in U.S. courts. To my knowledge, nobody has been convicted of that, so far. Let’s talk about freedom of expression. You have some freedom of tone in your blog. You are being interviewed in the mid-afternoon in a hotel. You don’t see a contradiction between your saying that there is no freedom of expression in Cuba and the reality of your writings and activities that show otherwise?
YS: Yes, but you can’t see it [my blog] from Cuba because it is blocked.
SL: I can assure you that I visited it this morning before the interview, from this hotel.
YS: It’s possible, but most of the time it’s blocked. Anyway, currently, I am not allowed the smallest space in the Cuban press, or the radio or television, even though I am a moderate person.
SL: But you can publish what you please on your blog.
YS: But I cannot publish a single word in the Cuban press.
SL: In France, which is a democracy, large sectors of the population have no access to publish because most of the press belongs to private economic and financial groups.
YS: Yes, but that’s different.
SL: Have you received threats for your activities? Have you ever been threatened with a prison sentence for what you write?
YS: Not direct threats of imprisonment, but they will not let me travel abroad. Now I’m invited to a conference about the Spanish language in Chile. I did all the paperwork but they will not let me go.
SL: Have you been given any explanation?
YS: No, but I want to clarify something. U.S. sanctions against Cuba are an atrocity. It is a failed policy. Although I’ve said it many times, it gets no press because it is bothersome that I have an opinion that deviates from the archetype of the opposition.
SL: So you are opposed to economic sanctions.
YS: Absolutely, and I say that in every interview. A few weeks ago, I sent a letter to the U.S. Senate advocating for allowing U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. It is an atrocity to see that U.S. citizens are prevented from traveling to Cuba, like the Cuban government prevents me from leaving my country.
SL: What do you think about the hopes raised by the election of Obama who promised a change in policy towards Cuba, but who has disappointed many?
YS: He came to power without the support of fundamentalist lobby in Miami who supported the other candidate. For my part, I spoke out against sanctions.
SL: The fundamentalist lobby opposes the lifting of economic sanctions.
YS: You can debate with them and explain my arguments, but I would not say that they are enemies of the homeland. I don’t think that.
SL: Some of them participated in the invasion of their country in 1961 under the orders of the CIA. Several of them are involved in terrorist acts against Cuba.
YS: The Cuban exiles have the right to think and decide. I’m in favor of them having the right to vote. Here the Cuban exiles have been really stigmatized.
SL: The “historical” exiles or those who have emigrated for economic reasons since then?
YS: Actually, I oppose all extremes. But the people who are in favor of economic sanctions are not anti-Cuban. I think they defend Cuba according to their own standards.
SL: Maybe, but economic sanctions affect the most vulnerable sectors of the Cuban population, not the leaders. So it is difficult to be both in favor of the sanctions and pretend to defend the welfare of Cubans.
YS: It’s their opinion. That’s the way it is.
SL: They are not naive. They know that Cubans suffer from the sanctions.
YS: They’re just different. They think they can change the regime by imposing sanctions. In any case I think the embargo has been the perfect argument for the Cuban government to maintain intolerance, control and internal repression.
SL: The economic sanctions have an effect. Or do you think they are just an excuse for Havana?
YS: It is an excuse that leads to repression.
SL: Do you think the sanctions affect the country economically? Or is the affect marginally?
YS: The real problem is the lack of productivity in Cuba. If sanctions were lifted tomorrow, I doubt that we would see the effects.
SL: In that case, why doesn’t the U.S. lift the sanctions and remove the [Cuban] government’s excuse? Then it would be obvious that the economic difficulties are only due to internal policies. If Washington insists on the embargo despite its anachronistic nature; despite the opposition of the vast majority of the international community, 187 countries in 2009; despite opposition from a majority of public opinion in the United States; and despite opposition from the business world, there must be a reason, right?
YS: It’s because Obama is not the dictator of the United States and he can’t remove the sanctions.
SL: He can’t eliminate them completely because that takes an act of Congress. Nevertheless he can ease them significantly, which he has not done so far. Besides reversing the restrictions imposed by Bush in 2004, almost nothing has changed.
YS: No, not true, he has also allowed U.S. telecommunications companies to do business with Cuba.
International awards, the blog and Barack Obama
SL: You have to admit that is very little when you know that Obama promised a new approach toward Cuba. Back to your personal case. What’s behind your spate of awards, and international success?
YS: I don’t have much to say except to express my gratitude. Each award involves a degree of subjectivity by the jury. Each prize is disputable. For example, many Latin American writers deserved the Nobel Prize for literature more than Gabriel García Márquez.
SL: Are you saying that because you think he doesn’t have much talent or because of his favorable view of the Cuban Revolution? You don’t deny his writing talent, do you?
YS: It’s my opinion, but I’m not going to say he won the prize for that reason and accuse him of being an agent of the Swedish government.
SL: He won the award for his literary work while you have been rewarded for your political views against the government. That’s the impression we have.
YS: Let’s talk about the Ortega y Gasset award from the newspaper El Pais which raised more controversy. I won it in the “Internet” category. Some complained that this prize hasn’t ever gone to journalists, but I’m a blogger and a pioneer in this field. I consider myself an Internet celebrity. The Ortega y Gasset jury is composed of highly prestigious personalities and I wouldn’t say that they would lend themselves to a conspiracy against Cuba.
SL: You cannot deny that the editorial line of the Spanish newspaper El Pais is extremely hostile to Cuba. And some think that the prize, worth 15,000 euros, was a way to reward you for your writings against the government.
YS: People think what they want. I think my work was rewarded. My blog has 10 million hits a month. It is a cyclone.
SL: How do you pay for the management of such a flow?
YS: A friend in Germany was in charge of that because the site was hosted in Germany. For over a year now it has been hosted in Spain and I received 18 months free thanks to The Bob’s award.
SL: And the translation in 18 languages?
YS: They are friends and admirers who volunteer to do it for free.
SL: Many people find that hard to believe since no other site in the world, including those of major international institutions such as the UN, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, OECD, or the European Union, have so many language versions. Neither the US State Department nor the CIA web sites have such a variety.
YS: I’m telling you the truth.
SL: President Obama even responded to an interview from you. How do you explain that?
YS: First, I want to say that they weren’t softball questions.
SL: Neither can we say that you were critical, given that you did not ask him to lift the economic sanctions which you say are “used as much to justify the disastrous productivity as to suppress dissent,” which is exactly what Washington says about it. The most daring question you asked was if he had plans to invade Cuba. How do you explain that President Obama took the time to answer you, despite his jam-packed agenda, an unprecedented economic crisis, healthcare reform, Iraq, Afghanistan, the military bases in Colombia, the coup in Honduras’ and hundreds of interview requests from major media around the world in queue?
YS: I’m lucky. I want to say that I also sent questions to President Raul Castro and he has not responded. I haven’t given up hope. Besides, has the advantage of knowing Obama’s responses.
SL: How did you reach Obama?
YS: I forwarded the interviews to several people who came to visit me and who had contact with him.
SL: Do you think Obama answered because you’re a Cuban blogger or because you’re opposed to the government?
YS: I don’t think so. Obama responded because he speaks to citizens.
SL: He receives thousands of solicitations every day. Why did he answer a simple blogger?
YS: Obama is close to my generation, to my way of thinking.
SL: But why you? There are millions of bloggers around the world. You don’t think you are being used in Washington’s media war against Cuba?
YS: In my opinion, perhaps he would want to respond to some points, such as the invasion of Cuba. Maybe I gave him the opportunity to speak on a subject that he has long wanted to address. The political propaganda constantly warns of a possible invasion of Cuba.
SL: But there was one, right?
SL: In 1961. And in 2003, Roger Noriega, Undersecretary of State for Interamerican Affairs said that any wave of Cuban immigration to the United States would be considered a threat to national security and would require a military response.
YS: That is another matter. To return to the topic of the interview, I think it allowed him to clarify certain points. I have the impression that there is no desire on either side to normalize relations or to understand one another. I asked him when we would reach a solution.
SL: Who is responsible for this conflict between the two countries according to you?
YS: It is difficult to find to place blame.
SL: In this particular case, the United States imposed unilateral sanctions on Cuba and not vice versa.
YS: Yes, but Cuba confiscated U.S. properties.
SL: I get the impression that you are Washington’s lawyer.
YS: The seizures occurred.
SL: That’s true, but according to international law. Cuba also confiscated properties of France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, and the UK and compensated those nations. The only country which rejected the compensation was the United States.
YS: Cuba also allowed the installation of military bases on its territory and the missiles of a distant empire…
SL: … Like the U.S. installed nuclear bases against the USSR in Italy and Turkey.
YS: Those nuclear missiles could reach the United States.
SL: Like the U.S. nuclear missiles could reach Cuba or the USSR.
YS: Yeah, but I think there was an escalation in the confrontation by both countries.
The five Cuban political prisoners and the dissidents
SL: Let’s tackle another issue. There is much talk about the five Cuban political prisoners in the United States sentenced to life imprisonment for infiltrating right-wing factions in Florida that were involved in terrorism against Cuba.
YS: It is not a subject of concern to the population. It’s propaganda.
SL: But what is your point of view?
YS: I’ll try to be as neutral as possible. They are agents of the Ministry of Interior who infiltrated the United States to gather information. The Cuban government says they performed no espionage activities but instead infiltrated Cuban groups to prevent terrorist acts. But the Cuban government has always said that these groups are linked to Washington.
SL: So the radical exile groups have ties with the U.S. government.
YS: That’s what the political propaganda says.
SL: So it’s not true.
YS: If it is true, it means that the five were engaged in espionage.
SL: So in this case, the U.S. has to recognize that violent groups are part of the government.
SL: Do you think that the five should be released or that they deserve their sentences?
YS: I think it would be worthwhile to review the cases, but in a less politically charged context. I don’t think politicizing the case helps them. The Cuban government propagandizes the matter too much.
SL: Maybe because it is entirely ignored by the Western press.
YS: I think the situation of those people, who are human beings with families and children, could be resolved, but on the other side there are also victims.
SL: But the five did not commit any crimes.
YS: No, but they provided information that caused the death of several people.
SL: You are referring to the events of February 24, 1996, when two planes of the radical organization Brothers to the Rescue were shot down after repeatedly violating Cuban air space and calling for rebellion.
SL: However, the prosecutor acknowledged that it was impossible to prove the guilt of Gerardo Hernandez in that case.
YS: True. I think that when politics gets into issues of justice, that’s what happens.
SL: Do you think it is a political case?
YS: For the Cuban government is a political case.
SL: And for the U.S.?
YS: It is my understanding that there is a separation of powers there, but the political environment might have influenced the judges and jury. Sill I don’t think it is a political case directed by Washington. It’s difficult to get a clear picture of the case because we have never had access to all the information about it. But the priority for Cubans is the release of political prisoners.
U.S. funding of Cuban dissidents
SL: Wayne S. Smith, the former U.S. ambassador to Cuba, said it was “illegal and unwise to send money to Cuban dissidents.” He added that “no one should give money to the dissidents especially with the aim of overthrowing the Cuban government.” He explains: “When the United States declares that its goal is to overthrow the Cuban government and then claims that one way to achieve this is by providing funds to Cuban dissidents, they are placed in the de facto position of agents of a foreign power paid to overthrow their own government.”
YS: I think that the financing of the opposition by the U.S. has been presented as a fact, which is not the case. I know several members of the 75 dissidents arrested in 2003 and I strongly doubt that story. I have no evidence that the 75 were arrested for that. I don’t believe the evidence that was presented in the Cuban courts.
SL: I don’t think it’s possible to ignore this reality.
SL: The U.S. government itself says that it has supported the internal opposition since 1959. It is proven not only by declassified files, but by Section 1705 of the 1992Torricelli Act, section 109 of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, and the two reports by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba released in May 2004 and July 2006. All these documents reveal that the president of United States funds the internal opposition in Cuba with the aim of overthrowing the government of Havana.
YS: I don’t know, but …
SL: If you’ll allow, I’m going to cite the laws in question. Section 1705 of the Torricelli Act stipulates that “the United States Government may provide assistance, through appropriate nongovernmental organizations, for the support of individuals and organizations to promote nonviolent democratic change in Cuba.” Section 109 of the Helms-Burton is also very clear: “The president [U.S.] is authorized to furnish assistance and provide other support for individuals and independent nongovernmental organizations to support democracy-building efforts for Cuba.”
The first report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba planned to develop a “solid support program that promotes Cuban civil society.” Among the proposed measures is 36 million dollars in funding to “support the democratic opposition and strengthen the emerging civil society.”
The second report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba contained a budget of $31 million for further financing the internal opposition. It also included at least $20 million annually toward this objective “until the dictatorship ceases to exist.”
YS: Who told you that the money reaches the hands of the dissidents?
SL: The U.S. Interests Section confirmed in a statement: “U.S. policy, for a long time, has been to provide humanitarian assistance to the Cuban people, specifically to families of political prisoners. We also permit private organizations to do it.”
YS: Well …
SL: Even Amnesty International, which recognizes the existence of 58 political prisoners in Cuba, acknowledged that they are in prison “for having received funds or materials from the U.S. government to carry out activities that the authorities consider subversive and damaging to Cuba.”
YS: I don’t know if …
SL: On the other hand, the dissidents themselves admitted receiving money from the United States. Laura Pollán of the Damas de Blanco said: “We accept help, support, from the extreme right to the left, without conditions.” Opponent Vladimiro Roca also admitted that Cuban dissidents are subsidized by Washington saying that the financial assistance received was “totally and completely legal.” For the dissident René Gómez, financial support by the United States “is not something that we have to hide or be ashamed of.”
Even the Western press recognizes it. Agence France Presse reported that “dissidents, for their part, accepted that financial assistance.” The Spanish news agency EFE refers to “opponents paid by the U.S.” As for the British news agency Reuters, “the U.S. government openly provides federal financial support for the activities of dissidents, which Cuba considers an illegal act.” And I could give many more examples.
YS: It’s all the fault of the Cuban government for preventing the economic prosperity of its citizens, imposing rationing on the population. One has to stand in line to get products. We have to judge the Cuban government first for causing thousands of people to accept foreign aid.
SL: The problem is that the dissidents committed a crime that Cuban law and all the penal codes of the world severely punish. Being financed by a foreign power is a serious crime in France and elsewhere.
YS: Admittedly funding the opposition is evidence of interference but …
SL: But in this case, people who you describe as political prisoners are not political prisoners because they committed a crime by accepting money from the U.S. and the Cuban court has convicted them on that basis.
YS: I think this government has often interfered in the internal affairs of other countries by financing rebel and guerrilla movements. It intervened in Angola and …
SL: Yes, but trying to help independence movements against Portuguese colonialism and the apartheid regime of South Africa. When South Africa invaded Namibia, Cuba intervened to defend the independence of that country. Nelson Mandela publicly thanked Cuba for it and it was the reason for which his first trip was to Havana, not Washington or Paris.
YS: But many Cubans died so far from their land.
SL: Yes, but it was for a noble cause, be it in Angola, the Congo or Namibia. The battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 led to the fall of apartheid in South Africa. That’s what Mandela says! Aren’t you proud of that?
YS: I agree, but ultimately, my country’s interference abroad bothers me more than anything else. What is needed is to decriminalize prosperity.
SL: Even receiving money from a foreign power?
YS: People have to be economically independent.
SL: If I understand correctly, you advocate the privatization of certain sectors of the economy.
YS: I don’t like the term privatizing because it has a pejorative connotation, but to put it in private hands, yes.
Cuba’s social achievements?
SL: It is a matter of semantics then. What according to you are the social achievements of this country?
YS: Each achievement has come at a huge cost. Everything that may seem positive has had a cost in terms of freedom. My child receives a highly indoctrinated education and they teach a history of Cuba that does not correspond at all to reality. I would prefer a less ideological education for my child. On the other hand, nobody wants to be a teacher in this country because wages are so low.
SL: Okay, but that doesn’t negate the fact that Cuba has the highest number of teachers per capita in the world, with a class maximum capacity of 20 students, which is not the case in France for example.
YS: Yes, but there was a cost and that’s why the education and health are not really gains to me.
SL: We cannot deny something recognized by all international institutions. With regard to education, the illiteracy rate in Latin America is 11.7% and 0.2% in Cuba. The enrollment rate in primary education is 92% in Latin America and 100% in Cuba and for secondary education 52% and 99.7% respectively. These figures are from the Department of Education of UNESCO.
YS: Okay, but in 1959, although living conditions were difficult in Cuba, the situation was not so bad. There was a flourishing intellectual life, vibrant political thought. In fact, most of the supposed current achievements that are presented as a result of the system were inherent in our character. Those achievements existed before.
SL: That’s not true, and I will cite an unquestionable source: a World Bank report. It’s a pretty long quote but worth it.
“Cuba has become internationally recognized for its achievements in the areas of education and health, with social service delivery outcomes that surpass most countries in the developing world and in some areas match first-world standards. Since the Cuban revolution in 1959, and the subsequent establishment of a communist one-party government, the country has created a social service system that guarantees universal access to education and health care provided by the state. This model has enabled Cuba to achieve near universal literacy, the eradication of certain diseases, widespread access to potable water and basic sanitation, and among the lowest infant mortality rates and longest life expectancies in the region. A review of Cuba’s social indicators reveals a pattern of almost continuous improvement from the 1960s through the end of the 1980s. Several major indices, such as life expectancy and infant mortality, continued to improve during the country’s economic crisis of the 1990s … Today, Cuba’s social performance is among the best in the developing world, as documented by numerous international sources including the World Health Organization, the United Nations Development Program and other U.N. agencies, and the World Bank. According to the 2002 World Development Indicators, Cuba far outranks both Latin America and the Caribbean and other lower-middle income countries in major indices of education, health, and sanitation.”
In addition, the numbers reveal it. In 1959, the infant mortality rate was 60 per thousand. In 2009 it was 4.8. That is the lowest rate in the Third World of the Americas and is even lower than the U.S.
YS: Well, but …
SL: Life expectancy was 58 years before the Revolution. Now it’s almost 80 years and is similar to that of many developed countries. Cuba now has 67,000 Doctors compared with 6,000 in 1959. According to the British newspaper The Guardian, Cuba has twice as many doctors than England for a population four times smaller.
YS: Okay, but freedom of expression has declined in comparison to the Batista government. The regime was a dictatorship but there was a plural and open free press, radio programs of all political persuasion.
SL: Not true. Press censorship also existed. Between December 1956 and January 1959, during the war against the Batista regime, censorship was imposed on 630 out of 759 days. And opponents faced sad consequences.
YS: It is true that there was censorship, intimidation and deaths at the end.
SL: So you cannot say that the situation was better with Batista as the opponents were murdered. That doesn’t happen today. Do you think that the First of January was a tragedy for the history of Cuba?
YS: No, not at all. It was a process that sparked a lot of hope, but that betrayed the majority of Cubans. It was a bright moment for a major segment of the population, but it ended one dictatorship and installed another. But I’m not as negative as some.
Luis Posada Carriles, the Cuban Adjustment Act and emigration
SL: What about Luis Posada Carriles, the former CIA agent responsible for numerous crimes in Cuba that the U.S. refuses to prosecute?
YS: That’s a political issue that doesn’t interest the people. It’s a smokescreen.
SL: It at least interests the families of the victims. What is your view on this?
YS: I don’t like violence.
SL: Do you condemn terrorist acts?
YS: I condemn all acts of terrorism, including those currently being committed in Iraq by a supposed Iraqi resistance that kills Iraqis.
SL: Who kills more Iraqis; insurgent attacks or U.S. bombings?
YS: I don’t know.
SL: A word about the Cuban Adjustment Act, which states that any Cuban who legally or illegally emigrates to the United States automatically gets permanent resident status.
YS: It’s a benefit not enjoyed by other countries. But the reason Cubans emigrate to the United States is because the situation is difficult here.
SL: And the U.S. is the richest country in the world. Many Europeans also migrate there. You acknowledge that the Cuban Adjustment Act is a formidable tool that encourages legal and illegal emigration.
YS: It is indeed a source of encouragement.
SL: You don’t see it as a tool to destabilize the society and the government?
YS: In that case we can also say that granting Spanish citizenship to Cuban-born Spanish descendents is destabilizing.
SL: That’s totally different because there are historical reasons for that and moreover Spain applies that law to all Latin American countries and not just to Cuba, while Cuban Adjustment Act is unique in the world.
YS: But there are strong relationships. Baseball is played in Cuba and the United States.
SL: And in the Dominican Republic and yet there’s no Dominican Adjustment Act.
YS: Nevertheless, there is a tradition of closeness.
SL: So why wasn’t this law enacted before the Revolution?
YS: Because Cubans didn’t want to leave their country. At the time, Cuba was a country of immigration rather than emigration.
SL: That is absolutely false because in the 50s Cuba ranked second among American countries in terms of emigration to the United States, just behind Mexico. Cuba sent more emigrants to the United States than Central and South America put together, while Cuba currently ranks only tenth place despite the Cuban Adjustment Act and the economic sanctions.
YS: Maybe, but there was not an obsession to leave the country.
SL: The figures show otherwise. Currently, I repeat, Cuba ranks only tenth on the American continent in terms of United States emigration. So the obsession of which you speak is stronger in nine other countries of the continent at least.
YS: Yes, but in the past Cubans traveled back and forth.
SL: It’s the same today; every year Cubans living abroad return to vacation here. Also, before the 2004 restrictions imposed by President Bush that limited travel by Cuban American to 14 days every three years, Cubans were the U.S. minorities traveling more often to their country of origin, much more often than Mexicans for example. By making return visits to their country, they demonstrate that Cubans living in the U.S. are overwhelmingly economic migrants and not political exiles, because that is something a political exile would not do.
YS: Yes, but ask them if they want to stay and live here again.
SL: But that’s what you did, right? In addition, on July 2007 you wrote in your blog that yours was not an isolated case. “Three years ago […] in Zurich […] I decided to return and stay in my country. My friends thought that I was joking, my mother refused to accept that her daughter would not be living in the Switzerland of milk and chocolate.” On August 12, 2004 you went to the provincial immigration office in Havana to explain your case. You wrote: “I was shocked when I was told to go to the end of the line of those ‘returning’ […]. I suddenly found myself among other ‘crazies’ like me, each with their own horrific story of return.” So people do return.
YS: Yes, but people come back for personal reasons. There are some who had debts abroad; others could not stand life abroad, a multitude of reasons.
SL: So, despite the daily difficulties and vicissitudes of life here, it’s not so terrible because some people return. Do you think that Cubans have an overly idyllic image of life abroad?
YS: That’s because the regime’s propaganda presents life abroad too negatively and that has had the opposite effect on the people and they have idealized the western lifestyle. The problem is that in Cuba, emigration of more than eleven months is definitive, instead of allowing one to live two years abroad and come back for a while and leave again and so on.
SL: So, if I understand correctly, the problem in Cuba is more of an economic nature and that people want to leave the country only to improve their standard of living.
YS: Many people want to travel abroad and to return later but immigration laws don’t allow it. I’m sure that if it were possible, many people would emigrate for two years and then return and later leave again and back, etc.
SL: There were interesting comments on your blog in that regard. Several migrants spoke of their disillusionment with the western lifestyle.
YS: It is very human. You fall in love with a woman and three months later the illusion is gone. You buy a pair of shoes and you don’t like them after two days. Disappointments are part of the human condition. The worst thing is that people cannot return.
SL: But people come back.
YS: Yes, but only on vacation.
SL: But they have the right to stay as long as they want, even several years, although they lose some benefits reserved for permanent resident such as the ration book, housing priority and so forth.
YS: Yes, but people can’t spend several months here, they have their lives abroad, their work, etc..
SL: That’s a different matter and is the same for all migrants worldwide. In any case, migrants can very well return to Cuba anytime and stay as long as they want. The only thing is that if you are abroad for more than eleven months you lose some benefits. On the other hand, I find it hard to understand, if it is so terrible here, why someone who has the opportunity to live in a developed country would want to return to live in Cuba?
YS: For many reasons, family ties, etc.
SL: So the situation is not so dramatic.
YS: I wouldn’t say that; but some have better living conditions than others.
SL: In your opinion what are the goals of the U.S. government regarding Cuba?
YS: The United States wants regime change in Cuba, and that’s what I want too.
SL: So you share a common goal with the United States.
YS: Like many Cubans.
SL: I’m not convinced of that. But why? Because it’s a dictatorship? What does Washington want from Cuba?
YS: I think it’s a geopolitical issue. There’s also the will of the Cuban exile community, which is taken into account. And they want a new Cuba, the wellbeing of Cubans.
SL: With the imposition of economic sanctions?
YS: It depends who you mean. As far as the United States, I think they want to prevent an immigration explosion.
SL: Really? With the Cuban Adjustment Act that encourages Cubans to leave the country? You’re not serious. Why not abolish this law then?
YS: I think the real U.S. objective is to annihilate the Cuban government making the region more stable. Much has been said of David and Goliath to describe the conflict. But the only Goliath for me is the Cuban government that imposes control, lawlessness, low wages, repression, restrictions.
SL: Don’t you think that the hostility of the United States has contributed to it?
YS: I don’t just think it has contributed to it but it has become the main argument for claiming that we live in a besieged fortress and that all dissent is treason. I think in reality that the Cuban government fears the disappearance of this conflict. The Cuban government wants the economic sanctions to continue.
SL: Really? That is exactly what Washington says in a somewhat contradictory manner, since, if that were the case, shouldn’t they lift sanctions and allow the Cuban government to be accountable? Then there would no longer be an excuse for the problems in Cuba.
YS: Every time the U.S. has sought to improve the situation, the Cuban government has had a counterproductive attitude.
SL: When has the United States sought to improve the situation? Since 1960 the sanctions have only tightened, with the exception of the Carter period. It’s difficult to back up this line of thought. In 1992 the U.S. adopted the extraterritorial Torricelli Act; in 1996, the extraterritorial and retroactive Helms-Burton Act; in 2004, Bush adopted new sanctions and broadened them in 2006. We cannot say that the U.S. has tried to improve the situation. The facts show otherwise. Moreover, if sanctions are favorable to the Cuban government and are merely an excuse, why not remove them? The leaders don’t suffer from the sanctions; the people do.
YS: Obama took a step in that direction, insufficient perhaps, but interesting.
SL: He only removed the restrictions imposed on Cubans by Bush, which prohibited Cubans from visiting their country for more than 14 days every three years, in the best of circumstances, and only if they had an immediate relative in Cuba. He even redefined the concept of family to the point that Cubans in Florida who only had an uncle in Cuba could not travel to their country because an uncle was not considered a “direct” family member. Obama did not remove all the sanctions imposed by Bush and did not even return to the Clinton policy.
YS: Above all, I think both sides should tone it down, and Obama has. Obama cannot erase the sanctions; that requires the agreement of Congress.
SL: But he can significantly ease it by simply signing executive orders, which he has refused to do so far.
YS: He is busy with other issues such as unemployment and health care reform.
SL: But he took the time to respond to your interview.
YS: I’m a lucky person.
SL: The Cuban government’s position is this: we don’t need to take any steps toward the United States because we didn’t impose sanctions on the United States.
YS: Yes, and the government also says that the United States should not seek internal changes because that is interference.
SL: That’s the case, right?
YS: So if I ask for a change it is also interference?
SL: No, because you’re Cuban and therefore entitled to decide the future of your country.
YS: The problem is not who requests the changes; it’s the changes in question.
SL: I’m not sure because as a Frenchman I would not like the Belgian or the German government to meddle in the internal affairs of France. As a Cuban, do you accept that the U.S. government tells you how to govern your country?
YS: If their goal is to assault the country, it is clearly unacceptable.
SL: Do you consider economic sanctions to be an assault?
YS: Yes, I consider [sanctions] to be an aggression that has had no results. It is an artifact of the cold war that makes no sense and that harms the people and strengthens the government. But I repeat that the Cuban government is responsible for 80% of the current economic crisis and 20% is because of economic sanctions.
SL: Again, I repeat, that is exactly the position of the United States government and the figures show otherwise. If that were true, I don’t think that 187 countries would bother to vote on a resolution against the sanctions. Eighteen consecutive times the vast majority of UN countries have opposed these economic sanctions. If it wasn’t a big deal, I don’t think they would bother.
YS: Well, I’m not an economics expert; that is my personal feeling.
SL: What do you recommend for Cuba?
YS: I think we need to liberalize the economy. Of course it can’t be done overnight because it would cause disruption and social disparities that would harm the most vulnerable. But we must do it gradually and the Cuban government has the chance to do it.
SL: A capitalism ‘sui generis’, as you say.
YS: Cuba is a sui generis island. We can create a sui generis capitalism.
SL: Yoani Sanchez, thanks for your time and openness.
YS: Thank you.