On Monday, March 4, 2013, Yoani Sánchez, the most influential Cuban blogger and the country’s leading dissident, paid a visit to the Forum 2000 Foundation. She has been invited to participate in this year’s conference by Jakub Klepal, the Executive Director of Forum 2000, and gladly accepted the invitation if the Castro regime agrees to let her leave the country.
You have received invitations to annual Forum 2000 conferences on a regular basis for years now. Was it of any importance to you, knowing the Cuban government would never let you go to Prague anyway?
An invitation to participate in Forum 2000 has always meant a lot to me, although I have been prevented from leaving the country more than 20 times now. Knowing that people with democratic views on the other side on the world think of me has always been a great moral support.
What do people in Cuba think about Václav Havel?
When I was reading Havel’s essay The Power of the Powerless for the first time, I wrapped Granma, the official newspaper, around it, just in case, so that no one could see it. Cuba’s government still sees Václav Havel as the image of a devil. But most ordinary Cubans respect and admire Havel as a great personality, mainly because he succeeded in transforming the communist system into a democratic one in a very good way. For dissidents, Havel is a person who never abandoned them and always tried to do the best he could to help them.
If you come to this year’s Forum 2000 Conference whom would you most like to meet?
I would love to come and hope I will be able to. Unfortunately, I am not the only one to decide. Honestly, I wonder if I will ever be allowed to travel abroad again when I come back from this tour. In a way, the state of Cuba treats its citizens the way a despotic father treats his children. When they are naughty they deserve a punishment. But if Castro lets me go I would very much wish to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Chinese dissidents and their leader Liu Xiaobo in Prague. It would be great to meet the leaders of revolutions in the Arab countries, too. Last but not least, I would like to see my friends; active Cuban dissidents like Rosa María Payá or Osvaldo Valdés, the founder of the Liberal Democratic Party of Cuba.
In recent years there has been a lot of discussion here whether it is a good thing to travel to Cuba as a tourist or whether it is rather a form of support to Castro and his regime. What should a conscious tourist do?
Traveling to Cuba is good. But if one contents themselves with a bottle of rum and lying on the beach at the hotel resort all the time, that won’t help anything. People who try meeting representatives of Cuban civil society and pass on some modern technologies which are hard to get in Cuba, whether it is an old laptop or flash discs – that can help. It is also useful to bring books which are subject to censorship in Cuba. The important thing is that rather than supporting the government the presence of tourists in Cuba must support ordinary citizens.
But when a tourist wants to meet ordinary Cubans, aren’t they in danger of getting in trouble?
In the case of dissidents, it is risky on one side and a kind of protection on the other, which, in the end, I find more important. Once somebody abroad knows the dissident exists, Cuban authorities don’t dare to do so much. For ordinary people, the most effective help from tourists is supporting the slowly developing small businesses. In the future, they can help a lot in making political changes as well.
Are you afraid that when your tour is over and you go back to Cuba, you will face much harsher repression than in the past?
Yes and no. I am sure that the hateful campaign against me will be reinforced. They will sling mud at me both in newspapers and on television. There will also be increased pressure on my relatives. They will be bothered even more than they are now. On the other hand, it will be much more difficult for Castro and his regime to imprison me for no reason, as they did in the past, because I will be even more known abroad.
Are you afraid that in interviews with foreign media you could say something that Castro could use against you?
My greatest fear is that of living life in fear.
You emigrated to Switzerland in 2002 and just two years later decided to go back to Cuba. Why? Do you regret it?
I definitely don’t regret it. When I lived in Switzerland I realized that I can do much more for the democratization of my country back in Cuba. That was the main reason I came back.
Local Catholic newspapers are a bit more open than government media in Cuba. Could this be a way to gradually bypass local censorship?
It is true that religious newspapers are a little more open than the state media. But I am an agnostic and do not get in touch with people from Catholic newspapers much. I hope that soon there will be a free medium in Cuba, independent of the official propaganda and not connected with the Church or religious views.
Is there a chance for such a medium to emerge in Cuba any time soon?
It will soon be possible. Little paths are starting to take shape and they could help to get around the censorship. All we need is to take advantage of a moment when the regime is weakened in a way, and I believe that the time has come now.
To what extent has Oswald Payá Sardiñas’ death last year affected dissent in Cuba? Is the Cuban opposition homogenous enough to fight Castro and his regime in an efficient way?
With Payá we did not lose only the most important politician of the opposition of the present, but also a major political figure of the future; a man of spotless moral credit who was known not only in Cuba but worldwide. In any case, his death was an impulse that brought our dissent together. Despite many ideological differences, the opposition in Cuba agrees on essential points. I find it useful that representatives of opposition have different views on different things, but when it comes to issues associated with the need for democratization they are all united.
How do you see Cuba in the years to come?
In the short term, I can see Raúl Castro trying to maintain his grip on power at any cost. On one hand, he will allow certain smaller reforms to happen, especially in economics, but on the other hand, he will then adopt even harder measures to curb dissent – including imprisonment and other repression. A mass of ordinary Cubans will remain apathetic and wait to see what happens after this administration steps down. But if Hugo Chávez loses his control over Venezuela we are going to end up in a very difficult economic situation. Still, I remain positive in this respect because it is such critical moments that will help accelerate our transformation to better times. There is a saying in Cuba that goes: “The good thing about the system is the bad shape it is actually in”.