Yoani Sanchez is the only citizen in Cuba who has managed to interview a sitting U.S. president: Barack Obama. On November 2009, with seven questions and answers posted in her award-winning blog, Generation Y, she accomplished what the government and official press has failed to do for half a century: to dialogue one-on-one with the “leader of the free world,” the president of the country the Cuban regime considers its No. 1 enemy.
The national media on the Island ignored this historic virtual meeting. Though they have yet to publish unflattering caricatures of Barack Obama (a common practice toward previous American leaders), the Cuban press has begun to target him. Most notably, former President Fidel Castro Ruz frequently attacks Obama in his newspaper column “Reflections,” a constantly updated treatise on his world view.
Sanchez, whom Time Magazine named one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World" in 2008, lives with her husband and son on the 14th floor of an Eastern European style apartment block overlooking the Plaza of the Revolution. Previously, they made a living as independent Spanish teachers for foreigners, but currently Sanchez writes for many important international journals and magazines. In their home they have established a Cuban Blog Contest, a library, as well as the Island's only Blogger Academy -not officially recognized by the authorities- to train new independent bloggers and to grow the Cuban blogosphere.
From her balcony, marked with a neon-green Y visible from the nearby monolith that marks the focal point of the Cuban state, this frail-looking 34-year-old, with her nearly transparent skin and cascades of dark hair falling to her waist, shares her perspectives for 2010. According to many political prognosticators, this year could be definitive for Cuba, possibly redefining its hemispheric context and fundamentally altering its everlasting differences with the United States.
Since 2008 Sanchez’ blog Generation Y, translated to various languages and with millions of hits per month, is blocked for readers inside Cuba. However, everyday she is getting more recognized in Havana streets by persons that receive underground cable TV cable channels. As a citizen committed to expand freedom of expression within the Island, Sanchez has remained independent of all Cuban dissent organizations and opposition parties. So, even while state security agents stalk her throughout the city, and Cuban official journalists attack her in an offensive manner, so far she remains free of any judicial charges.
To accomplish this interview, Sanchez sent her questions to the White House through a friend, and the replies were hand delivered to her in Havana. After she posted the interview, questions were raised about whether the answers actually came from President Obama and a White House spokesperson confirmed that they did.
1. President Barack Obama, speaking to you and to world public opinion, assured that, “The United States has no intention of using military force against Cuba,” adding that “only Cubans themselves are capable of promoting positive change in Cuba.” In your opinion, do the Cuban people feel any sense of danger as their government continues to warn of an impending “imperialist invasion”?
Yoani Sanchez: The continuing warnings of an imminent invasion, of an enemy about to launch itself at the Island, is the central focus of political propaganda in Cuba. But many Cubans have long ceased to believe what the billboards and the television newscasters tell us. After repeating so often that we are about to be in at war with our neighbor to the north, the threat has lost its force; in fact, few pay any attention to it. Far from worrying about a possible American occupation, the problems that most frighten us are the collapse of production, the lack of freedom, and the anachronistic discourse of power.
2. Is the silence of President Raul Castro in response to your intended double interview an isolated incident, or do you consider it a symptom of the current Cuban Realpolitik? How would you define such Raulpolitik?
YS: Power in Cuba does not talk to citizens. They try to present the decisions that affect the population as occurring in an open way, but in reality these decisions are made in a single office, in a closed family and military clan. The public face of power, the National Assembly, simply rubber stamps them, voting unanimously for whatever the ruling family puts forward. Thus, I am able to obtain an interview with the president of another country, while my own president shows me complete indifference. All this goes back to the original sin of Raul Castro; he was not elected through a popular referendum but rather came to power through family inheritance, through blood. Thus, he is not required to respond to the questions and criticism that come to him from the Cuban people. He is not held accountable for the delay in necessary reforms, the increasing repression, and the timidity with which he has implemented measures to improve production on the Island.
That said, I have not given up hope that Raul Castro will answer my questions, even more so now that he knows Barack Obama’s answers.
3. In the academic sphere, among Cuba experts, or at the popular level, is there a certain lack of confidence in a democratic transition in Cuba and fear that the country could collapse into anarchy or even civil war?
YS: Cuba’s leaders have had repeated opportunities in the last 50 years to implement a gradual and orderly transition. Every time the circumstances have favored progressive reforms, they have preferred to make things more difficult, choosing the path of greater control and centralization. This has prevented any change, such that any opening is likely to create social fractures leading to a cycle of violence. The current government of the Island would be principally responsible for any outbreak of civil unrest because they have missed every opportunity for an orderly and peaceful transition.
Despite the specters of a coup or a citizen uprising that perennially haunt us, I believe the necessary and inevitable transition in Cuba can occur peacefully. We have the good fortune to live in a country without ethnic hatreds, without linguistic or religious conflicts, and where intermarriage militates against racial confrontation. Nor do we have regional conflicts that could lead to civil wars. The confrontation would be solely based on ideology. And we know that the degree to which people feel compelled to feign loyalty to the current system makes it impossible to really know how many people want to live in a democracy. I suspect we are talking about the majority.
4. To what extent do you think Barack Obama has accomplished his campaign promises with regards to Cuba in his first year in office?
YS: In just 12 months, Obama has done more to normalize relations with Cuba than any previous American president did over his entire term of office. We are not No. 1 on his agenda, but neither have we been totally forgotten. He lifted the restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting the Island and sending remittances to their families, and he is now “threatening” to freely allow Americans to come to the Island as tourists. Our government is somewhat confused because they are used to a more aggressive adversary, one they can rely on to provide an excuse for the lack of freedoms in Cuba. With his smile and his youth, the American president is admired by many of my compatriots. To counteract the “Obamamania” however, anti-American rhetoric is already being manufactured, including the mocking and derogatory phrase, “Obama is like Bush, just painted black.”
5. I would like to know your opinion about the rationality of the “embargo” or “blockade” or any other semantic subtlety to call the American policy of trade restrictions toward Havana.
YS: I believe that these economic restrictions − an “embargo” to some and a “blockade” to others − represent a blunder in American policy toward Cuba. Far from suffocating the ruling class of the Island, these trade restrictions create material difficulties for the population and feed the radicalization of the ideological discourse inside Cuba. The embargo has been an argument to justify the unproductive and inefficient state-run economy, including the total ruin of various sectors. Worse than that, it has been used to support the maxim, “in a country under siege, dissent is treason,” which contributes to the lack of freedoms for my fellow citizens.
In its nearly 50 years, the “blockade” has done nothing to limit the material arsenal of our authorities, not one of them has ceased to enjoy their privileges. An example is the issue of Internet access. They have always blamed the restrictions on Internet access on the fact that the United States has not allowed Cuba to connect to its underwater cable. The victims of these restrictions are ordinary Cubans; we have had to postpone our enjoyment of the World Wide Web, while the police, the censors and the official media seize the few kilobytes of access available to the whole country.
When Barack Obama authorized American telecommunications companies to negotiate with their Cuban counterparts, this alibi for limiting the use of the Internet fell apart. Unfortunately, the government of Raul Castro has ignored his proposal and we continue to be the “Island of the Disconnected.” But on this issue, at least, it is obvious to all that the responsibility does not rest entirely on external forces, but also on internal political will.
6. What recommendations would you make to the American government and to the citizens of the United States to improve their relations with Cuba?
YS: In the first place, we have to put aside the idea that relations between peoples are shaped in the halls of governments and the corridors of foreign ministries. Between the United States and Cuba there is a shared history, kinship and culture that do not depend on agreements between our respective administrations. For example, a linguistic detail illustrates the Island’s sympathy with our neighbors to the north; we never use the word “gringos” with all its negative connotations, rather we use the word “yumas” which is much more friendly.
Our nation is no longer contained within a single territory; there are Cubans in every part of the world, and especially on the other side of the Florida Straits. As a result, our destiny is indissolubly tied to the United States. With due respect for our sovereignty, with more collaboration, more cultural exchanges, more citizen solidarity and fluidity of communications, both peoples would benefit. For this reason I support an immediate opening to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba, the end of the “blockade,” the end of the damaging hostilities of the Cold War, and in particular the complete elimination of anything that limits contact between the citizens of both countries.
7. There is a younger generation of people in Cuba and the United States who have very different ways of approaching the difference between the two governments, a generation that includes Barack Obama and yourself. Looking ahead to 2010, after half a century of Revolution, do you anticipate any progress in the direction of mutual understanding, or the classic confrontation between these two neighbor nations will go on?
YS: Fortunately, 2010 started with an increase in the exercise of civic opinion inside Cuba. As a friend said to me, last year was one of citizens beginning to express their dissatisfaction in tiny voices, whereas before that they had been crouching in fear, afraid to speak at all. I hope that in the coming months we will see those voices singing out, in a new dawn without tension, without leaders who remain in power for fifty years, and above all without the fear that consumes contemporary Cuban society. I am speaking of a new stage where our leaders do not “direct” us, but rather they “serve” us, a stage where rather than chanting slogans, they show results.
Unfortunately, many people on this Island are waiting for a “biological solution,” which would come with the natural ends of the lives in those now holding power. No one can avoid death, and like a great Saturn who has devoured his children, the Cuban process will not leave behind a generation committed to its ideas or determined to continue them. We are living at the end of an era and I can only hope that the next one will be more focused on the citizen, and that as we enter this stage we can count on the solidarity of the United States and the rest of the world.
Obama and the country he represents can play a very important role in this opening of Cuba to democracy, but they must do so without interference with respect to our sovereignty and our decisions. The year 2010 could contain within its days the date that we will later celebrate as the new beginning between the two countries. For myself, I wish it would come as soon as possible. April seems a good time to announce the spring. After all, April should not be always the cruelest month.