When Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez received a call from the country’s Interior Ministry earlier this month, her immediate reaction was one of suspicion. “When the Interior Ministry calls you at home it’s never to give you good news,” she tells The Independent, speaking from her apartment in Havana.
As one of the country’s most vocal internal critics, Ms Sánchez had even more reason for concern. But for once, the 37-year-old writer – whose blog detailing the difficulties of living in the one-party state has attracted hundreds of thousands of fans, including US President Barack Obama – was pleasantly surprised. The ministry was calling to say her passport was ready to collect. It was a milestone for Ms Sánchez. She would be one of the first Cubans to receive a new passport, paving the way for her to leave the country after almost six years of waiting. Yesterday she got her wish, and was able to fly to Brazil.
Ms Sánchez had been living in Switzerland before deciding to uproot her family to return to her home country in 2004. Her aim was to open a digital magazine for political dissidents, and encourage free speech despite government restrictions. “Then I opened my blog [in April 2007] and I was never again allowed to leave Cuba,” she says. “Ever since I started talking, they stopped me from travelling.”
Cuba clamped down on international travel soon after the 1959 revolution in an attempt to stop a mass exodus of professionals leaving the Caribbean island for the US. But on 14 January, the government finally opened the long-awaited process to apply for a new passport, which – in principle – will make leaving Cuba easier. Before the new passport was launched, Cubans had to apply for a “white card” exit permit, which was usually denied by the authorities, often with no reason given.
“I’d been trying to get the permit to travel for the last five years and I had got 20 negative responses,” says Ms Sánchez. This time, her application was approved, by “the same civil servants who had acted despotically on other occasions and had told me – almost smiling – that I wasn’t allowed to travel”.
Ms Sánchez, a University of Havana philology graduate, began her blog, “Generation Y”, as an honest alternative to both the government’s official propaganda and the stories peddled by its critics. “I could no longer stand the official propaganda – all the lies. Where was the country they promised?” she says. “My mother had been born almost already in this system, I was born within this system, and my son had been born within this system. And it was the feeling of: ‘Well, this never ends’.”
Ms Sánchez says when she began, “writing it was like throwing a bottle in the sea”. She had no idea the blog was attracting a great deal of attention both in Cuba and internationally. Her readers began to email her, teaching her how to use WordPress, which allowed her to open the blog up to comments from readers.
“Everything changed because then it was possible for readers to comment. They took over the comment zone and Generation Y turned into a public square to discuss things,” she says.
As President Obama noted at the time, Ms Sánchez’s writing gave “the world a unique window into the realities of daily life in Cuba”.
By March 2008, Generation Y had become the most read blog in the country, with 1.2 million visits per month, and the government soon responded by blocking access to it from within Cuba. Sánchez circumvented the censorship by emailing her blog posts to volunteers outside Cuba who would publish them, and translate them into English, attracting more than 1,000 online comments for each post.
The government finally gave up the blockage in February 2011. But the fame remained, and continued to affect Ms Sánchez’s life inside the country. “The attention on all the fronts of my life, the public demonisation of my person, my face in the evening news on TV along with the worst kind of adjectives: mercenary, cyber-terrorist, Nato or CIA agent… the worst things you can be called in Cuba… The arrests, the beatings, the arbitrary detentions, the kidnappings, the pressure on my family, on my friends… If I had known [when I began writing], maybe I would not have gone ahead.”
One incident in November 2009 stands out. Ms Sánchez claims that two state security agents forced her and fellow writer Orlando Luis Pardo into a car as they walked to a demonstration. She says she was beaten before they were released in different places.
The Cuban government denied the attack on Ms Sánchez, and another on her husband. It has repeatedly accused her of working under US guidance to undermine the Cuban government, and Cubans who support the government accuse her of inciting to violence and of betraying the revolution.
“[I was afraid] all the time, and not only was I afraid, but what was happening was worse than what I might have expected,” she says.
It was the support of ordinary Cubans that kept her writing, Ms Sánchez says. “Every time I’m out and someone recognises me they tell me very nice things: ‘Resist’, ‘go on’, ‘I’m a reader of yours’. Some tell me: ‘I want to be as brave as you are’.”
“I also understood that if I shut up it would be worse,” Ms Sánchez says. “This visibility and the fact that so many people read [what I wrote] gave me a lot of protection too. Many activists like myself started to realise that, instead of hiding and speaking quietly, it was better to be narrating ourselves.”
The 1959 revolution brought about by Fidel Castro, Ernesto Ché Guevara and others established a one-party state that controlled a socialist economy. They created a system in which every Cuban could get free health care, education and jobs.
As a result, unemployment is extremely low (around two per cent), but so is productivity. Few Cubans manage to make more than the state salary of $20 (£13) a month. As the Cuban saying goes: “Fidel pretends to pay us and we pretend to work.”
Ms Sánchez admits several changes have taken place in Cuba since her childhood – one of which is the opening up of Cuba to foreign tourism. “When we in Cuba suddenly had the chance to talk to someone from Madrid or from Istanbul and hear how life was in their countries – the problems, the benefits – that was a big blow to the official propaganda, which until then had convinced us Cuba was paradise and the outside world was hell.”
Though many tourists from the West enjoy the image of Cuba as a repository of the 1950s and 60s – the classic cars, the faded ornate buildings, the vintage radios – Ms Sánchez finds these things symptomatic of Cuba’s greatest problems: “We didn’t want to turn this country into a museum of the 20th century. It’s been an imposition brought by material limitations and bureaucratic controls. Don’t be content with the stereotype,” she says, as if speaking to tourists headed for Cuba (almost three million visited last year). “Come here and live Cuba, but live it truly, with the rationed market, with a monthly salary of $20, with the bus that doesn’t come, with the policeman who arrests you with no explanation, with the security agent listening to you from the other side of the wall… Live it as what it is, the 20th-century totalitarianism taken into the 21st century.”
The new passport measure is one of a series of reforms to give Cubans more control over their lives, which have been brought in by Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother, who took over as Cuban President in 2008. His government, which employs about 85 per cent of the country’s workforce, said it would start to lay off public workers as limitations on private enterprise became more relaxed, allowing people to start businesses of their own. Importantly, Cubans can also now buy and sell property such as houses and cars.
Ms Sánchez knows she has become a symbol of repression in Cuba, describing it as a “responsibility” that is “very hard to carry”. She is unconvinced that the reforms are a sign of benevolent intentions, or that the government is willing to loosen its grip on the country. For example, though a new passport may make leaving Cuba easier, the application process costs $100, five times the average monthly salary.
“I don’t think these (reforms) are due as much to our leaders’ will as to a whole series of historical and technological circumstances, as well as to the exhaustion of their discourse,” she says.
Ms Sánchez landed in Brazil – the first destination on her world tour – today. She says she hopes she will be able to pick up some of the international awards she has received in person, and finally meet those who help her from a distance. She says she also wants to visit Facebook and Twitter’s headquarters in the US.
It is a story full of promise. But it could be said that the true test of Cuba’s reforms will only come when – as the first prominent critic to do so – Ms Sánchez will attempt to use her return ticket back to Havana.
In her words: Yoani Sanchez
* “In countries where there is a strict government monopoly on the press, we independent informers are considered by official propaganda to be enemies, traitors... It gives the impression that to expose ourselves by having an informative or opinion-related blog... would be like shooting oneself in the head. However... expressing yourself in cyberspace may be more likely to succeed than doing so in real life.”
* “As expected, there was not a single opponent to the government who managed to enter parliament [in the February 2013 election], no one with different political ideas will become a member of the National Assembly. Not even a single deputy who doesn’t possess the same ideology as the party in power...”
* “... the image of the old Cuban man with a puro [cigar] between his lips is becoming a thing of promotional posters and commercial advertising. Neither a retiree nor an active professional... can afford to buy quality cigars at a price that bears some relation to their legal income.”