This interview by NATALIE KITROEFF appeared in The New York Times.
Yoani Sánchez stepped out of a coffee shop in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York and quickly pulled a winter hat over her head, covering about three inches of her waist-length brown hair. “This is my disguise,” she said, “It’s not working.”
Ms. Sánchez, a dissident blogger a colleague recently called “the most famous living Cuban not named Castro,” spent the last week in New York and Washington as a part of an 80-day international tour. This is the first time the Cuban government has allowed her to leave the country in a decade, but she says she doesn’t feel very far from home.
“The official who stamped my passport was Cuban,” she said, “I said, ‘Wow, I am surrounded by Cubans, it’s beautiful.’ ”
For Ms. Sánchez, who has dedicated her career to publicly criticizing the Castro government, this trip is a vindication of her activism. In January, Cuba dropped rules requiring an exit visa in order to travel abroad, although citizens still have to apply for a passport before they are allowed to leave the country.
Ms. Sánchez says she formally requested a passport 20 times over five years before finally receiving one last month. She posted pictures of each rejection letter on her popular blog and on her Twitter feed, which currently boasts 455,000 followers.
“The pressure around my trip mounted, and perhaps they said: ‘The cost of making her stay here is too high. Let’s try letting her leave,’ ” Ms. Sánchez said.
Political calculations aside, experts say that the decision to let Ms. Sánchez and other critics travel is a sign of opening on the part of the regime. Ms. Sánchez’s trip “is the biggest sign of the change in Cuban policy so far,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute in Virginia. “She’s the person with the most notoriety who has benefited” from the relaxed rules, he added.
The domestic implications of allowing Ms. Sánchez are unclear, considering that many Cubans may not even know who she is. Her critics contend that her work is financed by the United States government and that she appeals only to Cubans in exile. Ms. Sánchez said she had no way of knowing how many of her readers were Cubans living on the island.
“I live in a country that has a monopoly on information, so when a Cuban is saying critical things about the government,” from outside the country, Ms. Sánchez said, “the biggest challenge is how to get that information out to your compatriots on the island.”
Most Cubans do not have access to a computer, let alone Internet service at home, and an hour of wireless connection can cost $10 – half of the average monthly salary. A fiber-optic cable has been providing higher-speed Internet access to the island since mid-January, according to the Renesys Corporation, an Internet monitoring company.
The result is that news from Cuba often travels in mysterious ways: sent out with the click of a button, a particularly controversial tidbit will make its way back to the island only via a call weeks later from an opposition activist’s family member abroad.
Blog posts are saved and passed around on thumb drives. Twitter posts are broadcast through text messages. “We find out about something that happened a few meters away after the news has left the country and come back like a boomerang,” Ms. Sánchez explained.
Ms. Sánchez has spent part of her trip nudging policymakers to fundamentally rethink United States policy toward Cuba. This is one place where she diverges from a large part of the Cuban-American community, which has supported Ms. Sánchez since her earliest days as a blogger and continues to regard her as something of a cause célèbre.
“I am really critical of the embargo, for example, because I think that it hasn’t worked,” Ms. Sánchez said, explaining that the embargo is a crutch for the Cuban regime during tough times. “If there aren’t potatoes, it’s because of the embargo. If there aren’t tomatoes, it’s the embargo. If there aren’t freedoms, it’s the embargo’s fault.”
During Ms. Sánchez’s brief stop in Washington, she met with two Florida Republicans who are among the staunchest supporters of the embargo in Congress, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart. Ms. Sánchez apparently did not change their minds. Reuters quoted Representative Ros-Lehtinen as saying after the meeting, “There has not been a change in attitude or position about dissidents who advocate for freedom and democracy in Cuba.”
The Cuban-American community argues that easing the embargo is tantamount to propping up the Castro regime, by supplying a much-needed cash flow to the state. “It’s true that a part of those resources will end up in the hands of the government,” Ms. Sánchez said, “But in these times, I think that assistance like that would be much more beneficial to the Cuban people.”
The Cuban government has found other sources of income, from China and Venezuela in particular, Ms. Sánchez said, and has managed to survive for a half a century without the United States’ help.
Ms. Sánchez ended her trip to New York on uncertain terms Thursday afternoon, when her news conference was abruptly moved her from the Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium to a cramped hallway in the United Nations Correspondents Association (U.N.C.A.) offices, at the request of the Cuban mission to the United Nations.
In a letter to Secretary General Ban-ki Moon, Rodolfo Reyes Rodríguez, Cuba’s United Nations ambassador, called the meeting an “anti-Cuba event,” that was “a premeditated and blatant political media aggression against a member state.”
Mr. Rodríguez also claimed that Ms. Sánchez, “receives instructions from U.S. authorities, as well as material, technological and financial support out of U.S. federal funds,” and contended that United Nations sponsorship of her visit would violate the organization’s charter.
At a briefing three hours before the event, Mr. Ban’s spokesman tried to create some distance between the United Nations and the U.N.C.A., which he emphasized is an “an independent entity.”
Asked about the debacle, Ms. Sánchez responded, “I’m used to speaking in smaller places in Cuba,” adding, “if this meeting had been held in an elevator, it would have been freer” than any setting in Cuba.
For the original report go to http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/22/interview-with-cuban-blogger-yoani-snchez/