Thursday, May 30, 2013

Cuban blogger returns home to unknown future

Posted on Wednesday, 05.29.13

Cuban blogger returns home to unknown future
Associated Press

HAVANA -- One of Cuba's most famous names is returning from a prolonged
global tour on Thursday, but don't expect well-wishers, flowers or
marching bands.

Most islanders won't even know about it.

When Yoani Sanchez touches down on a flight from Madrid on Thursday, she
will step into an unknown future that could bring the dissident blogger
more influence - or significantly more trouble - on this Communist-led
island that has never looked kindly on dissent.

"It is too early to know what it will bring, what impact it will have,"
Sanchez's husband and fellow dissident, Reinaldo Escobar, told The
Associated Press of his wife's highly-publicized travels. "What awaits
her is a lot of work, a lot of responsibility and the possibility to
realize her dreams."

In several tweets early Wednesday, Sanchez said she was returning to
Cuba after a "never-ending trip" and that she was "happy, exhausted and
full of ideas."

For those wondering why she would go back to an island that considers
her a public enemy, Sanchez answered: "Because I am stubborn ... for me,
life is nowhere but in Cuba."

Communist authorities allowed Sanchez and several lesser-known
opposition figures to travel as part of landmark migration reforms that
took effect in January, eliminating exit visa requirements for all Cubans.

She has taken advantage of the newfound freedom by visiting more than a
dozen countries since her trip began Feb. 17, touring the White House,
giving speeches before European and Latin American parliamentarians and
exchanging ideas with luminaries as diverse as Polish politician Lech
Walesa and Cuban-American musician Emilio Estefan.

Sanchez, who has won fame with searing social commentary in her
Generation Y blog and in a steady stream of tweets, has said she wants
to start an independent online newspaper when she returns.

That could put the 37-year-old on a collision course with the government
of President Raul Castro. The island has never shied away from
international opprobrium when it felt its security was at risk.

In 2003, Fidel Castro jailed 75 intellectuals, activists and social
commentators in a notorious crackdown on dissent. But Raul, who took
office in 2006, has freed them amid a slate of social and economic reforms.

Cuba considers all dissidents to be stooges paid by Washington and Miami
to stir up trouble. It had no comment on Sanchez's imminent return.

Observers were divided on how Cuba would react, though they agreed the
government would probably not come down too hard because Sanchez, like
other dissidents, has a very small following on the island.

"International prominence offers her opportunities for future trips and
protection against possible arrest," said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban
analyst and lecturer at the University of Denver. "But none of that
strengthens her capacity for internal organizing, which is still meager."

Dissidents complain the government controls all media, effectively
shutting them out of public discourse, and say those who openly support
them are harassed and ostracized. But it is also true that after more
than half a century of one-party rule, many Cubans express cynicism
about getting involved in political matters, and don't see the
dissidents as a viable answer to their daily problems.

Of 20 Havana residents polled informally by The Associated Press this
week, only seven said they had heard of Sanchez, and several of those
weren't sure exactly who she was. Just three said they knew about her
international trip.

"It's the first time I ever heard that name," said Irene Solis, 23.

"Who?" asked Rosa Suarez, 34.

Sanchez's obscurity back home is a far cry from the star treatment she
got on the trip, her first off the island after years of being refused
an exit visa.

Over three-plus months, Sanchez visited Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Spain,
Italy, the Czech Republic, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Norway,
Holland and the United States, where she met with senior members of
President Barack Obama's staff.

She spoke to international human rights leaders, gave speeches at U.S.
universities and toured the New York offices of Google and Twitter. In
Miami, she received hearty ovations from Cuban exiles and marveled at
encountering a "Cuba outside Cuba."

She strolled the sun-kissed beaches of Rio de Janeiro, tweeted a photo
of a Picasso masterpiece at New York's Museum of Modern Art and stood at
the site of the long-fallen Berlin Wall.

She also met with editors at media outlets from NPR and the New York
Times to Spain's El Pais, and told a regional journalism conference in
Mexico that Cuban bloggers walk "a red line between liberty and jail" -
comments that surely upset authorities.

Ted Henken, a Cuba expert who helped organize part of Sanchez's tour,
said she had gained more than 100,000 Twitter followers since she left,
bringing her total above half a million.

It will be a strange homecoming when Sanchez steps back into the simple
apartment she shares with Escobar and their son.

But Sanchez's return also presents challenges for the government, since
its treatment of her is sure to receive close scrutiny from journalists,
foreign governments and human rights organizations.

"She's the tip of the iceberg of an emergent civil society," said
Henken, though he also predicted Sanchez's fame would immunize her
somewhat from arrest or detention.

Carlos Saladrigas, co-chairman of the U.S.-based Cuba Study Group, which
advocates closer ties between America and Cuba, said Sanchez's trip
marked a seminal moment for dissidency on the island - but that the
government could also gain from showing a new tolerance for criticism.

"There is no return from this," he said. "They knew that dissidents
would say overseas what they say in Cuba. They took that risk."

Added Henken: "It does give (the government) a quiver in their arsenal
to say that this is change, and change is real: 'We have allowed this to
happen, and we have taken the consequences.'"


Andrea Rodriguez and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana, and Christine Armario
in Miami contributed to this report.


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