Cuba and Change: Yoani Sánchez


Paul Webster Hare writes about Cuba, the Castro brothers, and changing times, stressing the influence of women such as Yoani Sánchez and Mariela Castro. He doesn’t say much about the latter, but he states that Sánchez’s blogging is a sure sign of changing times, calling this supposedly new interaction a “black market of ideas” and a new arena for Cuban politics.

Change and Cuba. After 54 years the world is holding its breath. Fidel Castro said in 1959, “This time the revolution is for real.” In 2013 is change for real? Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez’s message, delivered repeatedly during her recent presentations in the United States and Europe, is that, yes, it is true. But Cuba is changing not because of the government’s reforms, but because the Cuban people are changing.

The changes that are happening in Cuba are in a country where political mechanisms have long been frozen. Cuba is now entering uncharted waters with few navigation aids. The first non-Castro, Miguel Diaz-Canel, has been nominated to lead the government but he is largely unknown to 11 million Cubans. [. . .] The government is admitting the mistakes of the past. Raúl Castro has called on Cubans to face reality after 54 years of the brothers’ government. “The accounts don’t square up,” he has said. “You have to act with realism and adjust the dreams to the true possibilities. Two plus two always equals four, never five.” Diaz-Canel has said that only the easy issues have so far been addressed. “Now what’s left are the more important and complex choices that will be more decisive in the future development of our country.”

Many countries face tough choices. But the difference in Cuba is the absence of political processes. There is no mechanism for managing change nor explaining why it is needed. Cuba has no political campaigning and allows only one candidate for each national assembly seat. There have been no significant political speeches made by anyone other than a Castro in over 54 years. Cuba’s media is a part of government. Raúl Castro has called his own media “boring” and “superficial,” prone to sugarcoat the national reality. [. . .] The complex choices Diaz-Canel mentions cannot be settled in a Council of State, which has long ceased to communicate with its people. The revolution is jettisoning some of its favorite policies but has not said where it wants to go. Will media sycophancy continue, as in the rambling interview Fidel Castro gave recently to Granma, or will there be a new license to debate?

Will Venezuela’s largesse — coming from an economy itself riddled with problems — still be the only way to fund Cuba’s public services? Is the vision of socialism in Cuba essentially any different from Canada or the United Kingdom where healthcare and public education are free? [. . .] Without politicians and an arena for debate, who can Cubans look to for guidance?

Enter Yoani Sánchez, Rosa Maria Payá, and, yes, Mariela Castro, all of whom confront real issues. A Castro and an independent blogger are never going to agree but they accept their Cuba is changing and challenge orthodoxy. Sánchez points to the ally of technology and mocks the distinction between Cubans and Cuban Americans. For her the non-conforming black market of ideas is becoming the new politics. [. . .] Sánchez has no party, belongs to no institution, but she has a blog. Cubans have cell phones, funded by family visits. They can connect with each other and their families under the radar of controls. The “self-employed” in the economy need other Cubans more than the government. Politics is pushing up from the underground and the disenchanted youth are enjoying it.

The battle of ideas in Cuba — ironically a slogan of the Castro revolution — is now happening on a new stage. [. . .] The ideas articulated by Yoani Sánchez that Cubans are connecting, interacting, losing their mask of fear. The suffocating structures of Castroism are intact, but the black market of Cuban politics is already in full swing.

Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba and deputy head of mission in Venezuela, now teaches international relations at Boston University.

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