Yoani Sanchez says Cuba’s Biggest Problem is a Lack of Freedom

Interview by Kelly Knaub

Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez.  Photo: 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.

Kelly Knaub with Yoani Sanchez

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…


9 thoughts on “Yoani Sanchez says Cuba’s Biggest Problem is a Lack of Freedom

  • Yoani who?

    I’m sorry but I lost interest in her writing long ago, 1 because she tends to complain about matters that might seem ordinary and to be expected and 2 because I find her writing has become increasingly bold, and not in a good way. Stop bashing long enough to realize that YOU and Cubans as a whole, are ten times better off than any of the other Latin America nations, including those who are still US Gov sponsored to this day.

    To Yoani I say this…Go to Haiti, go to the Dominican Republic … Then tell me who’s got a better life, Haitians and/or the Dominicans or Cubans? Or why not goto Mexico, where people risk their lives every minute of every day and often lose their lives, trying to flee and escape a “so-called” democracy, backed naturally by the US Government and it’s insatiable appetite for illicit drugs & the misery it brings to the citizens of the world, not just Americans. To add insult to injury Mexicans have to live with the fact that their own government is unwilling or unable to protect its law-abiding citizens, without the fear that a person, at the wrong place and time, will stand a 50/50 chance, at least, of NOT getting killed, for merely being at the wrong place and time!

    How about Yoani considers moving from Cuba to Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Argentina, Chile or Columbia to name only but a few other Latin American nations, who can only dream of the health care provided in Cuba, by the State & the selfless DR’s who serve the people and serve to keep them healthy. I know people all across Central & South America and I personally know of MANY people, at least a dozen off the top of my head, who would voluntarily immigrate to Cuba, from their nation of birth, if only given the chance because despite the nearly Hundred Billion Dollar genocidal Embargo which the US has used to terrorize Cuba for decades, Cuba has endured, Cuba has remained true to its word, values & have NOT caved in to the US drums of war and in doing so, Cuba…

  • Yoani, I am really questioning your reasoning for change in Cuba. Your ideas are based on complaints that are not secret for anybody in Cuba. What you really want is a Cuba to be free just to become a consumer of technologies rather than a country of free and responsible citizens with the capacity of producing what the country needs without looking to their neighbor for help. What your argument implies is to become again a nation of incapable to govern themselves, and incapable of creating a just, and highly develop society for all. I am afraid that your ideas do not add anything new, at least from my point of view, misleading yes, revolutionary no. I do not think that it address racism, opportunism, classism, and they are not inclusive. Your voice is for those people already unhappy with the system. Your voice is the typical voice of an agent of the counter-intelligencia cubana, that play the role to weed society of the elements danger to the party in power. Everyone in and out of Cuba knows about the CDR, everyone in Cuba know that Cayo Hueso (the part of the city where you live) that has been, and is a marginalized part of Havana, full of poor, black, and unemployed youth, and full of those people who have not been part of the well to do then, and now, where the first priority when they are born is to be an Abakua, Santero, or Babalao, rather than an engineer, a teacher or, a philologist like you. There is not news in those statement for me. On the other hand, I think that if you would pay for those year of education, I bet you would be still working as teacher, somehow to blog full time is much, much profitable that work as a teacher. Yes I think that education cost money, but it is pay collectively. It is extremely rare than a third wold country would offer education to his people, in fact those who can pay for their education in those countries go to private school abroad rather than staying in there universities because they know the level and quality of their education is pathetic. I am very curious, and just got a question, when you left Cuba do they stopped the medical service to your family? Any of your family was torture? Is you home in particular falling apart, even when you live in “that side of town”? How many rooms your apartment has? Did you get pay in hard currency, or you just live on donation, or charity? Do you have cell phone, running water and air conditioner? What about a television? I DID NOT have them growing up in Havana! Have you been in latinamerica? what about Colombia? Brazil? El Salvador?. In order to do a fair and just assessment of the Cuba situation you must put together the good and the bad, you need to stop being ideologic about this. And you know why? because you are going to incur in the very same mistake that Fidel Castro government did, “talking about the dollar as their where actually weapons, incarcerating those whose has it, and them overturning that law, without offering any apologies, or not compensating those who suffered these consequence. You seem to approach the cuban problem from the same ideological point of view of those before you, and those before them, and not from the existence of the reality in Cuba. Freedom is more than to be able to buy an moto ( like you said), is more than access to the internet, and free market, It is all the mentioned, plus the ability to build a just and responsibly society for all, more fair, more humane, less tyrannical. I am afraid that in your free society we where regress to the stone ages, to a primitive existence, to “El viva yo de siempre” And if you are not informed yet, the United State is fighting hard to have a plan that include a health care for all. You more than the majority of cuban have lived in a highly developed country in Europe, and you know by your experience that health and education are a central part of the social plan of those countries, and they ARE CAPITALIST countries. Even before you attack those social plans that are running in Cuba today, you must know that in the United State of America, the people in power come to the realization that there will always be a sector of the population that for a reason or another can not rise on themselves alone. ” If you want to measure how a country does, look how they treat at its poor” and that is how the Department of Welfare came to its existence. Pure capitalism lead to a prompt an inevitable arm revolution. You need to have a balance, you need to EDUCATE your society, you need compassion to call a society a free and fair society, you need fair law that ensure the nation progress, not just for a single group. By these in cuban case would mean to stop your historical racism, your neo-colonial mentality, stop your segregation that exist until today, move with decency, intelligence, and fairness, allow that island nation to be for all. To go back to more of the same, is not possible, because there would be force that would resist that. To serve a “democratic elected dictator” not!
    I just wondering why have you not been arrested like the others? but, just those around you? Can you answer me that? In recent year I have notice that the old saying “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” does not apply in all case, and one example of that, that came to mind was the Muhajideen and the U.S relationship and cooperation. That once they finished fighting the russian the turn against the U.S, changing their priorities, and adding to this “The enemy of my enemy can also be my enemy.”

    You are playing safe Yoani, put your body on the front line, it will look much better to me!

  • Yoani should try to do her “independent” journalism in Honduras, where journalists are being shot down like dogs.

  • Brien
    I think we are mostly in agreement one other thing
    I do not think Yoani is complaining here
    She is just mentioning and clarifying that Cuban education and health is not free.
    “Free” has been the sell out point to everyone from the revolutionary leaders.
    You can see Kelly herself believing that education in Cuba is free and speaking about it with Yoani.
    So some people do believe that is free. But when you consider the low salaries being paid compare to GDP you do realized that they already took a very huge chunk of money from their salaries to pay for all of that.
    No state can afford to pay for those things if it does not get the money from somewhere else.

  • Julio

    I don’t want to appear to be stubborn, but in all countries the money for everything comes from the people, either as fees, import duties, taxes, or all of these.

    The big difference is that unlike Cuba and Canada, many countries do not provide education or health care in exchange. There is very little widespread redistribution.

    No, I don’t think Cubans believe that it’s free, but I don’t understand why they (especially Yoani) complain that it’s being paid for by them. Here, too, people talk of “free” health care but no one believes it and no one (except the rich, whose taxes are higher) complains about it.

    I appreciate your response.

  • Brien
    In Cuba the leaders repeated time and time again that education was free and health care was free.
    The reality is that is not free. We paid for all of it. Just as she mentioned. We pay with the low salaries because they do become an implicit tax.
    See in Canada and the US and many countries they do not pretend to give you something for free because people know that everything cost money. So you see the direct cost of everything.

    Are Cubans so naive to think that the education and the health care are really free?
    I suppose some may not know but I think that many know they are paying for it.
    I am sure a doctor or other professionals that gets paid 20 dollars a month knows how much the same professional will make in many other countries.

    What is very disturbing is that the government keeps lying about it.
    Why? Is it to appear better than they are?

    It will be better if they admit that those things cost money and that the money comes from no other than the Cuban people themselves.
    The Cuban regime has always try to justified their repressive actions with the state of war. But who got Cuba in that state of war if it is not them? It is very convenient for them to keep things that way. So that they are uncountable for the many wrong things happening over there.

  • I’ve heard Yoanni complain before about what are in fact taxes. She sometimes sounds like anti-Cubans who claim that all money “ends up in the pockets of the Castros”.

    Cubans returning from abroad and tourists bringing goods into Cuba pay taxes or import duties just as they would in any country. Here (in Canada) my take-home pay is what’s left after federal and provincial taxes. Whatever I buy is usually subject to 13% in additional taxes, gasoline is about 2/3 taxes, etc. I also pay property taxes, and taxes on my home heating fuel (I live in a cold country). How else can services be provided to the public?

    I pay an additional tax for medical care. This entitles everyone to “free” medical care (and drugs, now that I’m a senior). Although I’ve never been unemployed, I paid employment insurance premiums (for 48 years, before retirement) for the unemployed to fall back on while searching for work. I wish my taxes were higher so that I wouldn’t have to bankrupt myself to send my grandchildren to university.

    As for freedom of speech, in most countries it’s an illusion. If you hold unpopular opinions, you’d best find new friends who share them and maybe be careful about what you say at work.

    In North America, you certainly don’t want to say, criticise Israel (the state) as you will be immediately be branded an anti-semite. This could result in immediate cancellation of speaking engagements and possible loss of employment, especially if you are an academic.

    A big difference is that the North-American nations are not in wartime mode (their wars are waged far away, against weak opponents) , so they tolerate dissent up to a point. If ever your opinions are deemed dangerous, you’ll be arrested.

    Lest anyone think I’m exaggerating, I would remind those in the US of the McCarthy years in the 1950s, and my compatriots need only to look back at the War Measures act in Canada in the Fall of 1970.

    Maybe Cuba is a little less tolerant, but then it is constantly being undermined by its big, powerful neighbour.

    Yes, Yoanni is right about some things, but she fills in the spaces in between with a lot of whining that feeds the prejudices of her right-wing followers abroad.

  • I believe freedom will come, But Slowly.
    I would like to see Cuba. I hope the Embargo of Cuba will be rescinded.
    Bob Cowdery
    Spokane, WA-USA

  • Dear Kelly

    Great interview. I have also been reading and commenting for a while on Yoani’s blog. First on the spanish side and later on her English site. Thanks to Yoani’s blog I learned about the existence of Havana Times!
    At the beginning I used a pseudonym (SilentVoice) (VozSilente) .

    Reading her made me realized that it was extremely important that we really put a real face and a real identity forward when talking about Cuba. It made me realized that if I was still hiding behind a pseudonym I was not yet free. So I follow her example and the example of many other cubans that are speaking what they think.
    She help me with her valor stop my inner policeman that had followed me even here to the US!
    And for the first time after all these years I was really a free Cuban.

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