Yoani Sanchez on Castro and Obama’s Key Moment

By Carlos F. Chamorro   (Confidencial)

Barack Obama and Raul Castro after their press conference on March 21, 2016. Photo: Alejandro Ernesto/EFE
Barack Obama and Raul Castro after their press conference on March 21, 2016. Photo: Alejandro Ernesto/EFE

HAVANA TIMES – In defining the key moment of President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba, journalist and blogger Yoani Sanchez, who directs the site known as 14yMedio, doesn’t hesitate in naming the live press conference when – to the general astonishment of Cubans – President Raul Castro found himself obliged to respond to the question of a CNN reporter regarding the Cuban political prisoners.

That instant, charged with a historic symbolism, brought to mind a scene from writer Javier Cuevas’ masterpiece Anatomy of an instant, set during Spain’s February 23, 1981, coup d’etat.  In the scene, ex-President Adolfo Suarez remains in his assigned Congressional seat in the semicircle while all of the other legislators, except for Santiago Carrillo and General Gutierrez Mellado, have hit the floor to protect themselves from the bullets of those perpetrating the coup.  In Havana, on the other hand, Castro appeared irascible and off guard, showcasing his worst authoritarian disposition to his people, while he navigated the questions of the international press. This paradoxical moment has been engraved in the minds of Cubans, and may in the future represent the beginning of a change of era.

Through a Skype connection that came and went, we spoke with Yoani about how Cubans live – those in the party, those in the streets, and those who are dissidents; the thawing of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana, amid hope and outsized expectations; and the uncertainty of a country “that can go two steps forward and three steps backwards.  We also talked about the celebration with the irreverent music of the Rolling Stones, and how Cuba has felt these days less of an island and more “part of the world.”

Yoani, what’s the final assessment of Cubans regarding Obama’s visit to Cuba?  I imagine there are several different visions.

YS: Yes, the government has one account, which seems to be fairly critical and negative judging by the reflection and the comments made by Fidel Castro; these were pretty aggressive against Obama.  Another final balance is that of everyday Cubans who have invested a lot of hope and illusions in the outcome of this visit.  People think that “Saint Obama” will solve all our problems.  And there’s yet another set of conclusions on the part of the opposition, the critical sector: this group received a huge boost from Obama’s meeting with them, but they want a little more – stronger pronouncements regarding human rights, freedom for the political prisoners, and other changes.

Yoani Sanchez. Foto: eltiempo.com
Yoani Sanchez. Foto: eltiempo.com

How much play did Obama’s speech get? It was transmitted live on Cuban television, but after that did the press and the official radio stations continue to circulate it, or cover it up?

YS: That’s a good question, because whoever didn’t see it live, didn’t get to see it.  After the transmission of Obama speaking in the Havana Grand Theater, the complete speech was neither transcribed nor published, to the surprise of many. They tried to offer little clips or fragments of the speech that supported the official version.  At any rate, there’s a deeply submerged and illegal Cuba with alternative networks for the distribution of information.  Right at this moment, a pirated copy of the video is circulating from hand to hand and I can assure you that it’s very popular.  Nothing is more popular than the forbidden and Obama’s speech is right now in the zone of the illicit.

Obama placed a lot of emphasis on the potential for social and economic change that lies in the self-employed workers’ sector.  What real weight does this group have?

YS: We’re talking about a group of Cubans numbering less than half a million who can make their way in a sector that the government calls cuentapropistas, a euphemism for privately employed in occupations that generally involve services, food vending, etc., but which are almost never true professions.  You can’t be a self-employed lawyer, architect or construction crew.  The fact that Obama aimed his speech at them seems to me very intelligent, because it’s a sector that could change Cuba, but right now it’s very limited by the high taxes, the absence of a wholesale market, the government oversight itself, and above all by the suspicion that a system that has declared itself Marxist-Leninist harbors towards private business people and workers.

Unlike the aforementioned gathering, the one that Obama sustained with the leaders of civic organizations that promote political rights and freedom of the press was private.  What degree of significance did this meeting have?

YS: It was a big boost to the critical and dissident sector.  On the one hand, it was the first time that a foreign president who visited the island met with such a varied group of activists. Listening for over an hour and forty minutes is a sign of respect. From now on, the next functionaries and diplomats to visit Cuba may follow his example.  On the other hand, it was also a huge boost for the independent press.  The fact that at least four reporters who are not recognized by the government could enter there, myself among them, take pictures and interview functionaries at the highest level that accompanied Obama was a way of saying: there exists a press beyond Granma.

There is a sector of civil society that makes demands and exercises certain autonomy:  is that an irreversible opening, or could it be squashed again by the forces of repression?

YS: In Cuba you never know.  It’s like a sinister dance that can go two steps forward and three steps back.  But I have the impression that Castroism has lost a lot of strength.  In the first place, because the historic generation are approaching their nineties.  On the other hand, the “Obama coup”, although merely symbolic because there’s been no great change since he left, has touched certain chords in Cubans about their national identity and it’s going to be hard for the Castro forces to recuperate.  Castroism can’t win love or hypnotize people.  Obama has managed things that the Castro followers can’t compete with, such as talking with the best-known Cuban humorist, playing dominoes, eating in a private restaurant.  He has moved along some paths that leave Raul and Fidel Castro far behind.

In the press conference with Obama and Raul Castro, Castro was asked about the political prisoners and he promised to free them if he received a list.  What happened afterwards?

The Obama-Castro press conference of March 21, 2016. Photo: telesurtv.net
The Obama-Castro press conference of March 21, 2016. Photo: telesurtv.net

YS: Cubans of my generation watched the President give a press conference for the first time – it was unprecedented.  That was one of the most important parts of Obama’s visit, shining a spotlight on Raul Castro’s discomfort, because he looked angry, out of place, surprised, and then said something that in my opinion is important: he stated that if he received the list he would free the political prisoners.  If it’s not a dictatorship and if we have a Rule of Law with a judicial system, how is it possible for a president to say – “I’ll free them tonight”?  If Obama’s visit served to make clear that Raul Castro can’t face a free press, then it has been very useful.  It laid bare the authoritarianism and the dictatorship that we experience on the island.  After that press conference I understand that several independent organizations turned in the list of people in prison, but there was no liberation.

What can be expected from the upcoming Cuban Communist Party congress that will be held next April 16?

YS: A lot and very little is expected.  Why the contradiction?  “A lot” because the party membership itself has been giving signs that they’re unhappy that there hasn’t been a public discussion during the last months of the topics to be covered.  There’s a part of the membership that believes in the party and believes that this seventh congress could resolve some vital questions for the organization.  But on the part of the citizens, very little is expected, because a lot of people no longer believe that the changes can come from within the Party.  The problem that the Congress faces is that whatever happens – whatever it does or doesn’t do – everything will be seen as a reaction to Obama’s visit.  If they make a change, it will be because Obama pressured; if they make no change, it will be seen as their reply to Obama.  They’re pretty well trapped in this dynamic.

You direct a digital site, 14yMedio, whose stories we’ve reproduced in Confidential. Can it be read in Cuba without interruption or censorship?

YS: Unfortunately, since the day we were born on May 21, 2014 – and we’ll soon be two years old –  we’ve been technologically blockaded.  The Government has implemented a “filter” that keeps Cubans from directly accessing 14yMedio.  Nonetheless, I should clarify that I live in a country where there are 1001 ways to leap over the censorship.  That is, everyone knows the way to enter into a censored site, a forbidden page, an inaccessible content.  That cheers me, because I believe that we’re an island that specializes in opening windows when the doors are closed.

Hours before the Rolling Stones Havana concert on March 25, 2016. Photo: Yolvik Chacon
Hours before the Rolling Stones Havana concert on March 25, 2016. Photo: Yolvik Chacon

Obama left and Mick Jagger with the Rolling Stones arrived.  What did the concert leave behind for Cubans?

YS: In the first instance, a sensation of universality.  Remember, we live on an island and as a Cuban poet says, it’s the damn circumstance of water everywhere. So the fact that a nation that has missed out for decades on hearing voices like The Beatles, Whitney Houston, Freddie Mercury, musical personalities that left this world without ever even setting foot on our island, could at least receive the Rolling Stones was a very positive sign for Cubans.   We feel like: “Wow! We’re part of the world!”  It also felt like a victory for many people who suffered the censorship of a certain type of music, especially rock. Now they suddenly saw the officials receive with fifes and drums those same musicians that decades before had been stigmatized, that were the anti-new man, the enemy of that socialist man that the Castroists wanted to form who thought only about work and never about entertainment, the total opposite of what Mick Jagger is.  The Rolling Stones concert also touched many symbolic chords.

  • Moses Patterson

    Sra. Sánchez is a very smart and very brave woman. When history records how the Castro revolution came to sneak end, Yoani will be well-remembered.

    • She is politically inept. Take her comment — how is it possible for a president to say – “I’ll free them tonight”? Every government in the world as far as I know retains the right to release prisoners. For example the UK government released many prisoners in Northern Ireland.

      • Moses Patterson

        You misunderstand her. Her point is that his comment reflects the mind and the power of a dictator. Obama, as POTUS has the power to pardon criminals but he would never make such a comment. Raul spoke out exactly as he believes he can. As an all-powerful ruler.

        • dani

          Fabulous spin but that’s not what she said. If you look at the context again she says – ‘if we have a Rule of Law with a judicial system, how is it possible for a president to say – “I’ll free them tonight”? Totally unambiguous. If that isn’t what she meant (and it wouldn’t be the first time it has happened) then it just proves my original point.

          • Moses Patterson

            Fabulous is good. You still don’t get it though.

      • Eden Wong

        Dani, did you watch the news conference? Raul had never, ever faced reporters asking questions in his life. He was squirming like a fish on a hook. It was embarrassing. His comment was exactly what any all powerful dictator would blurt out.

        • dani

          I agree with you that Raul was angry and uncomfortable answering questions and it seems his headphones were playing up as well. But I couldn’t see anything particularly authoritarian in what he said. I think that the confusion is due to perception. You need to understand that from his point of view there are no political prisoners. So when asked he replied in the same way Obama or any other president would probably have. ie “I don’t know of any political prisoners but if there are, I will do everything in my power to free them as soon as possible.”

          • Eden Wong

            Well, we’ll agree to disagree on this one. I was at the news conference and to me he appeared furious that anyone would dare to question him. He knows damn well that anyone who dares to even burp in his presence risks going to jail and to have that questioned made him pop a gasket.

  • bjmack

    Might disagree on a few items but brilliant interview and I read Ms. Sanchez whenever she posts. Better of for worse, what I’m gathering is quite a few citizens of Cuba are not that pleased to have the US be involved within their country. I place my faith in the youth and Yoani is at the forefront.

  • Maureen Bordeleau

    Very interesting interview. Thank you Ms Sanchez for your analysis.

  • luis segui

    The USA is a BULLY in the first degree. The US embargo was meant to make Cuba poor. It worked. I dont know what all you fools are talking about. STOP the Embargo and then you can complain about Cuba. Ms Sanchez how much money do you get from Miami?

    • Informed about

      Why not address her points as opposed to what money she gets. Currently the Cuban diaspora provides billions of dollars in remitences every year.

    • HumbertoCapiro

      luis segui! Can you provide an academic paper or document with a link showing how the “embargo” has made the Cuban people poor? I mean with real data, not just generalities dear!
      U.S.-CUBA TRADE AND ECONOMIC COUNCIL, INC. – ECONOMIC EYE ON CUBA- February 2012 – Report For Calendar Year 2011
      The following is the data for exports from the United States to the Republic of Cuba relating to the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (TSRA) of 2000, which re-authorized the direct commercial (on a cash basis) export of food products (including branded food products) and agricultural products (commodities) from the United States to the Republic of Cuba, irrespective of purpose. The TSRA does not include healthcare products, which remain authorized by the Cuban Democracy Act (CDA) of 1992.
      http://www.cubatrade.org/CubaExportStats.pdf

  • Eden Wong

    I’ve known Yoani from the days she lived in Switzerland and we really don’t agree on much, but this interview is nicely straightforward and well stated. Good work.

  • RONIN

    Ms. Sanchez,
    you are in inspiration to all those who suffer. Your courage is impressive to say the least. I sincerely hope that despite the dangers you face, you keep on sounding off.

  • lowlois

    yes, she will be well-remembered, and well-paid. How much do the US pay Yoani and other mercenary ‘dissidents’? So disingenuous!

    • un cubano de a pie

      How much is the G2 paid for humiliate, degrade and coerce the Cuban people? How much is the MININT paid to beat, persecute, oppress and subjugate the Cuban people?

  • emagicmtman

    Once again, Yoani confirms my assessment of her as a political lightweight. Typically, she makes lots of negative comments on the situation in Cuba, but doesn’t have the analytical abilities to go much beyond this. If she should somehow get what she wants, Cuba would come to resemble its next door neighbor Mexico, where, according to a recent BBC report, 98% of all murders go unsolved, the police force is totally corrupt, and everyday life becomes, in Hobbes’s words, ever more “dangerous, unpredictable, brutal and short.” Ditto in the other “demokracies” of Central America, like Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, etc, where street- and drug-gangs hold control, and life so dangerous that families send their unaccompanied children North to escape the random and pervasive violence. Although there are certain dangers in a one-party state, there are also numerous benefits, too, the first being safety. Besides, our own Founding Father, George Washington, warned us against the dangers of “faction” (i.e. parties), and our second president, John Adams, perhaps rightly, tried to enforce Washington’s warning, with Congressional approval, by enacting the “Alien and Sedition Laws” of 1798 and 1799 (although personally, I agree with the more democratic philosophy of Thomas Jefferson and the Republican-Democrats!). One example of when our country flourished was the so-called “Era of Good Feelings,” after the Federalist Party had ceased to exist (due to its traitorous stance during the War of 1812, not to mention its anti-democratic tendencies so succinctly communicated by its darling, Alexander Hamilton), and we all (err, except, of course, slaves, women, and a few others–but in the end they too gained their freedom and their franchise!) went marching off into a splendid future. Ditto under Lincoln and the Republicans (he was correct in eliminating habras corpus), and again under F.D.R. and the Democrats (too bad he was unsuccessful in “packing” the Supreme Court, so that it would not interfere with his New Deal programs), when the opposition party was also reduced to next to nil. Perhaps, as Chairman Mao once said, under the umbrella of the Cuban Communist Party, “Let a hundred flowers bloom, a thousand schools of thought contend,” (or, as the Trots use to croon, “Assemble your faction for independent action!”). In any event, post Raul my hope is that Cuba should follow its own path, independent of the (Big Pharma) “medicines” prescribed by the Corporate State to the North. As Washington (and Marx) correctly foresaw, our own multi-party system has become totally corrupted by money and power. It has as little chance of bringing about real representative democracy; instead, it is going through the same degeneracy as ancient Rome, when the process of economic corruption destroyed all the democratic institutions, such as the Assembly of the Tribes, the Assembly- and the Tribunes- of the Plebs, The Senate, the Consuls,, etc.). As time goes on, our own political process will become as murderous as that of the Roman Republic during the century preceding the Empire (or as that of Germany’s, during the late Wiemar Republic)!

  • Dan

    Yoanni, Did Obama hand deliver your 1099 ? Or do I give you too much credit for independence, it’s a W-2 ?

    • Dan, instead of trying to discredit the messenger, it would be beneficial if you commented on the content of the interview.

      • Dan

        She is not a messenger… or second thought, maybe she is. I think it is obvious that if one is being financed, or more accurately, created, by a hostile foreign power, that that in itself is of paramount relevance. As far as the actual content, in my opinion it is so superficial and detached from fact that it does not merit comment.

        • HumbertoCapiro

          Dan! Can you prove that with some information and link! Gracias amigo!

          • Dan

            Humberto, sorry, I’m too busy trying to make a living to come up w/ documentary evidence on demand. I do recall reading articles showing her mind blowing, unexplainable rise to prominence, being awarded all sorts of prizes, being covered in the Western Media, all over and above much more worthy and endangered journalists. I seem to recall her mentioned in Wikileaks. There is the interview in Counterpunch, the interview w/ her Italian translator ..

          • HumbertoCapiro

            Hmm! So in other words, you cant! There are lots of chismes/gossip but no proof! Character assassination is a common tool used by the Castro oligarchy!
            VOA – 2012 : How do you do your work without economic resources?
            Sánchez: I started an online blog five years ago called “Generación Y” (Y Generation) and one of the biggest problems I encounter every week is free internet access to update texts and pictures. It’s my little virtual space. The Cuban government does not allow average citizens to obtain a household internet connection and interact online. That is a privilege destined for foreign residents in our national territory, and for politically reliable people. In my case, if I want to connect from a hotel the prices are astronomical, a click here and there have to be done fast because every minute that passes harms me economically. I do that once a week or every ten days. I write several articles from my house and when I manage to get connected, I scheduled the posts to give the impression my blog is alive, although I’m not connected at that moment.

            But other Cubans get online access in the early morning hours through accounts they buy in the black market, but that has many risks.

            http://www.voanews.com/english/news/americas/Dissident-Cuban-Blogger-Sees-Opportunity-in-Pope-Visit-143705056.html

          • Dan

            Voice of America ? You’re kidding right ? What would you say if I cited Granma to disprove the absurd contention made by Forbes, that Fidel is a billionaire ?

  • Olgasintamales

    To Dan, So you really drank the CoolAid that the Castro dynasty gave you. If you think that everyone that is opposed to a dictatorship that has oppressed a whole country, with not freedom of press, associations, free elections,freedom of moving in even inside the country, indoctrination of children,not Internet, ostracized the opposition or who ever bold enough to criticize a government that nobody had elected. You need help. And if you think that fake “elections” are real I feel sorry for you. Otherwise ask yourself why they would never dare to have multiple party election because they know they will lose against anyone . Ah I was born, in Cuba and raised in that place until I was 32 years old, and took with my two sons 7 and 5 years old on a boat to escape not for material things but for freedom to do whatever I please without thinking I’ll end in jail. By the way I’m afro-cuban as well.

  • Griffin

    Yoanni wrote: “The problem that the Congress faces is that whatever happens – whatever it does or doesn’t do – everything will be seen as a reaction to Obama’s visit. If they make a change, it will be because Obama pressured; if they make no change, it will be seen as their reply to Obama. They’re pretty well trapped in this dynamic.”

    That is a very interesting observation. There are those stalwart Cuban revolutionaries who are angry that Obama was allowed to visit Cuba. Perhaps there are also some members of the Party who would support some measure of political reform (but not too much, no!) Together they are locked in impotence, unable to affect or direct any change, yet also unable to prevent the inevitable changes ahead.