Interview by Kelly Knaub
HAVANA TIMES, August 26 — I began reading Yoani Sanchez’s blog Generation Y about a year ago. This Cuban independent journalist, who has received scores of international journalism awards and has been recognized by prestigious publications across the globe, has been reflecting and analyzing the daily Cuban reality since April 2007.
Last year, while I was writing an article that examined the relationship between Internet technology and human rights activism, Yoani’s September 2009 blog entry titled Things of bricklayers caught my attention. It began: “It is so easy to end up in prison, so short the road leading to a cell, we are all—potentially—convicts who pace the penitentiaries.”
She went on to write about several friends – most of them independent journalists – who were imprisoned at the top-security Canaleta Prison in Ciego de Ávila since the crackdown on dissidents by Cuban authorities in March 2003, now referred to as the Black Spring.
Some of these incarcerated journalists, she wrote, dictated news over the telephone to her and various other bloggers, which they then posted on the Internet. Yoani noted that this made her think that “there are no bars enclosing opinion and that cyberspace has the capability—also—to slip between the bricks and mortar of these dismal places.”
On July 7, 2010, while I was living in Havana, Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega announced that the remaining 52 of the 75 jailed Black Spring dissidents would be released. (So far, 26 have been freed and exiled into Spain, and Cuba announced six additional names this week.)
The day before I left “the forbidden island,” I had the opportunity to meet Yoani at her home and speak with her about her blog, Cuba, Raúl and the release of these political prisoners.
HT: I tried to look at your blog the other day to see what you’ve written recently, but the site didn’t open. Is access to your blog still blocked in Cuba?
YS: In March 2008, I woke up one morning and when I went to get on line at a hotel I discovered the terrible news that my blog had been blocked. That greatly hampered my work as a blog administrator. Although there are many tricks to be able to open a Web page —such as anonymous proxies, servers that work as bridges to prohibited sites, etc.— up to now none of those alternatives have allowed me to administer the blog.
Perhaps some of those alternatives might allow me to view the cover of my blog, but they don’t let me administer it. The connections to the Internet in Cuba are already very slow, and when you use another proxy or bridge server the speed decreases so much that it’s impossible to administer one’s page. But, in any case, this has not resulted in a great difficulty; it’s a problem to not see the page, but it has not been such a great hindrance to the life of the blog because in the end, at the moment when it was blocked, I already had many relationships with commentators, with people who visit my blog.
From my readers came several people offering assistance, like the English translator, who is a magnificent person, an excellent person with lots of energy. They help me to publish through e-mail. I’ll write several columns at home, and when I’m able to get on line I send the texts by e-mail with the photos attached; they then post them on the page. In fact, I’m the administrator of the blog because nothing is put on or taken off the page unless I request it. However, I can’t do anything to update it. And that’s the way it works.
HT: In your blog, you criticize much about life in Cuba under this government. In your opinion, what is the biggest problem in this country and what is the solution?
YS: I think the biggest problem in Cuba is the lack of freedom. The lack of freedom is translated into many other problems of the political, social and economic order. The fact that Cubans cannot express themselves, they cannot move or work as citizens within a framework of rights, this limits all of the nation’s potential. Given this, I believe that to begin to solve our problems in Cuba the Cuban government should pick up the microphone and say, “Starting tomorrow, no one else on this island will be punished or penalized for thinking differently.”
On the day this is stated, we will see the appearance of thousands of solutions to the nation’s problems. I often tell my friends that I don’t have the solution. I’m a journalist; I’m a person who shares opinions, but I’m not an economist, I’m not an agronomist, I’m not a specialist in domestic or foreign trade, but I know an “abracadabra” when I see one. “Abracadabra” is that magic word. Let’s go! (a snap of the fingers) and abracadabra! I know an “abracadabra” that can begin to solve everything and that can allow free expression. And with it will appear economists, agronomists and social workers with projects. But for the moment people are afraid to propose solutions, and that’s the main problem. This is the encumbrance, and this is what limits the country’s evolution.
HT: Fear of the government?
YS: Yes, fear of receiving a repressive response; fear of what will happen to you, about what they dare say about you. So that limits everything. That’s my opinion. Some people will tell you the economic problems are more serious… but I believe that all of that is the consequence of the lack of space for rights, so that citizens can move around, can express themselves and associate with one another.
HT: Apart from the poverty and the repression that one sees here, I also see good things, like free education, free medical insurance, and I’ve especially noted that there is not much violence in the streets; you don’t see gangs or people selling drugs outside. Do you believe that it’s possible to affect changes to address the problems without sacrificing the good things that are here?
YS: Like every society Cuba has its bright spots and shadows. In any case, I wouldn’t use the word “free” for services like health care and education. Cubans pay to study and to go to the hospital. We don’t pay in cash directly, but we pay with our wages; in other words when a person in Cuba receives the equivalent of $25 a month for their eight-hour workdays, every day, the State has already taken from that person’s wage the price of the medical insurance, they have already taken from them the price of education – even if they aren’t studying or are sick.
When a person in my country goes to the “dollar store” (which sells in convertible pesos) and buys a liter of milk for $2.60, they’re already paying for a part of the education and a part of the health care that perhaps they won’t use. So I think that there’s a need to play down that concept a little because it’s not that we have an opulent State that funds those systems for us; those services are borne on the shoulders of the Cuban people.
And though we fund them ourselves, although we pay them, unfortunately we can’t express our opinion about them or criticize them. I would like my son, a 15 year-old, to have another type of education. In my son’s classroom there are six photos of Fidel Castro. I wanted my son to have a depoliticized education… I wanted them to teach my son another version of the history of Cuba. However, unfortunately, I can’t even influence it directly by saying so because immediately they’ll tell me, “Silence!” It’s free? No, no, it’s not free.
Then I think that if there was something I would like to preserve about education in Cuba today, it’s the universal access; which is to say that there are schools everywhere in which the concept of education is incorporated into the life of the people, that surely studying is undoubtedly the best thing that is necessary to do.
However the current state of education in Cuba is quite dire. I believe that it is good, it’s healthy not to compare Cuba to either very developed countries or to countries that are in a state of true social collapse, like Haiti, because then the comparisons are never quite valid. It’s necessary to compare Cuba to what they promised us when I was a little girl, and this Cuba today doesn’t resemble anything that they told me about back then. So, it’s necessary to preserve the universal nature of education, but it should not be politicized; it cannot be ideologized; people should be entitled to criticize it. And it’s especially necessary to pay the teachers a decent wage. My son receives more than 60 percent of his classes on TV because no one wants to be a teacher.
He spent three years in a junior high where he never had an English teacher, where he never had a computer science teacher, and where he never had a physical education teacher. No, I don’t want that. I want a better education for my son. It’s necessary to preserve the infrastructure that is in each small town in Cuba, where there’s a school, but it’s necessary to modify and transform the educational system, just like with the public health system.
It shouldn’t be that I can go to a hospital where there’s a sophisticated computerized axial tomography (cat scan) machine but there’s no thermometer. It shouldn’t be that we have astonishing statistics on infant mortality yet in other areas —such as the detection of cancer, treating illnesses of aging and dental services— we’re so poor. So it’s necessary to keep the best things, but we can’t believe that the system of public health or public education in Cuba today is a model for anything.
And as for crime, firstly, I believe that there are elements of the uniqueness of our Cuban culture that are not motivated by the last 50 years. These are components of our national history that go back to the very beginning… We are a peaceful people. We have always been a people who rejected violence. When Christopher Columbus arrived in Cuba, the most populous ethnic group here was the Tainos, which was a tribe that practically didn’t practice war, who were very docile and very peaceful. In other words, we come from a legacy of tranquility. But on the other hand, the fact that there are no crimes reported in the media, that you can look in the newspaper and there’s no mention of rapes, murders or violent crimes, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
I was born in a quite marginal neighborhood of Havana, Cayo Hueso in Centro Havana, and I am terrified to go into that neighborhood at night – and this was the place where I was born. But I know that for a woman, or for any person who goes there at night, it’s dangerous.
On the other hand, the situation also exists in which the violence statistics are low given the excessive control. As my husband Reinaldo says a smaller incidence of violence is also a result. That’s a phrase that I like a lot, this is the collateral benefit of terror. When you know that your neighbor is monitoring you, when you know that in each block there is a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, well, then, you think twice before being getting involved in an illegal activity that would criminalize you. But that doesn’t mean that this society itself doesn’t lead to criminalization; rather, that people fear this society’s response.
Therefore, on this issue of the crime rate, I believe that it would be worthwhile to broaden many of those varied debates because it’s not as smooth as it sometimes appears from abroad. There are no weapons, true, there are no weapons sold, which allays my fears greatly. However, there are many acts of violence. You only have to be in a hospital’s emergency wing during the night shift and see the people brought in…
HT: In your opinion, what’s the meaning of the changes that Raul Castro announced a few weeks ago?
YS: The changes announced by Raul —despite being timid, insufficient and very slow— are oriented in the correct direction needed to open the economy, to accept more private creativity and facilitate a flow of self-employed labor. All that is very good, which is to say that I believe he had two alternatives: to make an ultra-conservative speech on the return of heavy-handed centralism or to announce this small opening. Evidently he took the path to change. What is happening is that this is a society that needs urgent measures, deep urgent measures. So what was announced by him, although it’s in the direction that we all hoped for, it’s not enough and it’s very slow.
I think there are many pieces that need to be unlocked in the social machinery, in the productive machinery. It’s not enough to issue licenses for self-employment, its not enough to allow people that have restaurants, rent houses, etc. to hire more personnel. It’s necessary to give them more. It’s necessary to give them guarantees that their there will be no confiscations.
It’s necessary to give them opportunity, with their own hard-earned money, in a decent job in the self-employment sector to be able to buy not only food in the store, or shoes, but to be able to buy cars, to be able to buy motorcycles, to be able to buy houses.
Between the real estate market, the market for cars, the market for land-line telephones (I’m not speaking of cell phones), you enter a realm in which everything is frozen. People have little incentive to produce more. They say, “Good, if I produce more then I what more can I have”? They’re already running up against the limit. Therefore they lack this opportunity, and they especially lack the public commitment that those the openings won’t close in four years.
HT: What do you believe the release of the 53 political prisoners means for the country?
YS: It has been a very well received gesture. The fact is that people, in my judgment, were serving excessive sentences for reasons of opinion and political motives, although the government wanted to explain it in another manner. They have begun to be released. I believe that it was an important signal for the years ahead because on the agenda were the list of the changes that many people were demanding – and not only opposition groups, foreign governments and international humanitarian organizations, but also even people within the government and Cuban cultural figures such as Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes. Among those people, one of the basic points —if not the primary one— was the release of those prisoners.
It was like taking the first step, and they have indeed begun to take it. Not everything has been concluded, but nonetheless, we have hope that they will continue to be released. I find it very positive; however, it’s not enough. While in Cuba there continues to be a system of surveillance and punishment for whoever expresses an opinion different from the State, at any moment there could return another Black Spring of 2003… or there could come a Gray Autumn of 2012 or a Dark Spring of 2014.
As long as the Cuban government doesn’t say, “Here there is no punishment against freedom of opinion, people can associate in ecological or political groups, they can found parties, they can have platforms, and they can create publications (whenever they fulfill the norms of a national publication, such as declaring where its resources come from, etc.) – whenever they do that, they can have it.”
As long as that is not done, we are all potential prisoners. This will be true as long as the government has in the penal code a criminal violation that it calls “illicit association” against enemy propaganda. There is a law that they apply against people who print and distribute something critical, different, contrary to the government. We are all in danger as long as there exists this penal code and the criminal decree of peligrosidad predelictiva (pre-criminal danger, whereby the government or its courts can determine that someone potentially in the future could commit a crime and they could be sent to prison for up to four years).
So, these releases should be followed by a process of guarantees. Well, they’re already free, now, those who are in the street should know that they will never go to prison for reasons of opinion or for political motives. And these are the guarantees. The Cuban government has to ratify the human rights pacts that it has not ratified. As long as it doesn’t ratify those pacts, there is no public commitment.
HT: The conventions are not ratified but they were signed for the first time in March 2008, after Raul Castro took office. Do you believe that the release of the prisoners was the result of that?
YS: Evidently there is now a series of processes that they are undertaking together and in a parallel fashion. This is very interesting in Cuban life. I believe that we are at an inflection point. When Raul Castro announced the signing of the pacts, it was undoubtedly a moment when there was much hope and many expectations around the world, concerning Raul’s pragmatism and his will for change. With time, Cubans came to understand, as did the international community, that Raul’s will for change was not such a great will for change, that everything was slower, more sluggish and more superficial than we all had imagined.
I think that announcing the signing of the conventions at that time was a way to buy time. With the passing of time they realized that by not ratifying them it was going to slip through their hands. I can tell you in my personal experience, which is the one that I can give more details on, that I’ve not seen a decrease in repression.
What I have seen is a change in the strategy of repression. In other words, perhaps with Fidel everything was more public, everything was more visible, the repression had a face. He would appear on the La Mesa Redonda, which is the most official program on Cuban television, and he would perhaps read a list of people and say, well, so and so are our enemies. But now not, now everything occurs in more silence, more in the shadows, with less of a public face, but it occurs. I’m a person who writes a blog and I frequently have a police operative outside of my house. Why? To me that’s a sign that nothing has changed…
HT: Thank you for responding to my questions.
YS: It was nothing, it was nothing…