Monthly Archives: April 2013

Will the Cuban government pay a price, or benefit, by finally letting Castro opponents travel?

Cuba's dissidents go abroad

Will the Cuban government pay a price, or benefit, by finally letting
Castro opponents travel?

HAVANA, Cuba — For most of the past 50 years, the Cuban government has
had a straightforward strategy for keeping opposition activists from
spreading their criticism abroad and linking up to international

It wouldn't let them leave.

By blocking dissidents from traveling, the Castro government could
punish their activism and limit the unflattering things they might tell
foreign audiences about life under tropical socialism.

Over the decades, countless speaking invitations for Cuban dissidents
from universities and foreign parliaments went unfulfilled. Awards were
never picked up. Prize money went uncollected.

Now many of those activists are packing their bags. Following the broad
travel liberalization implemented last month by President Raul Castro,
some of Cuba's best-known opposition figures have been told they're free
to go — and return.

Most notably, dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez has embarked an 80-day
tour of Latin America, Europe and the United States, with stops in New
York City, Washington, DC, and Miami. The 37-year-old creator of the
blog Generation Y is also planning to visit the offices of Twitter,
Google and Facebook.

Sanchez says Cuban authorities have denied her permission to leave more
than 20 times over the past five years, but finally issued her a
passport at the end of January. She boarded a flight Sunday evening from
Havana to Brazil via Panama.

"The Cuban government shouldn't even dream that I won't come back!" she
told her more than 400,000 Twitter followers over the weekend. "My
grandchildren will be born on this island, they'll bury me at the base
of a tree so I can live on!"

Now the question is: Will the trips abroad by Sanchez and other Cuban
dissidents further damage Castro's image abroad? Or will the very fact
that government opponents like Sanchez are traveling send the message
that Cuba is softening, opening up, and becoming more tolerant?

"In some sense, the government is attempting to convert its harshest and
most eloquent critics into its best ambassadors for the reality of the
changes taking place on the island, especially as related to its
migration reforms," said Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College who
is organizing events for Sanchez in New York City. "If they can travel,
things must be changing no matter what they say while abroad," he said.

But Henken said Sanchez will be able to gain new supporters around the
world as she travels, aiding her cause of "internal, civic and
non-violent struggle in Cuba," he said.

"This may be the unintended consequence and Achilles' heel of the
government's very positive, if calculated, decision to allow her to
travel," added Henken, who is also the president of the Association for
the Study of the Cuban Economy.

Sanchez's trip will take her to at least a dozen countries. There's been
no word yet if her two-day stop in Washington, DC will include a visit
to the White House.

Other prominent Castro critics have already left Cuba to begin trips of
their own. One young dissident whose departure carried added symbolism
is Eliecer Avila, who was featured in a viral 2008 YouTube video that
showed him publicly challenging a top Cuban government official about
why young people couldn't travel.

Also now traveling is Rosa Maria Paya, the daughter of late Cuban
dissident Oswaldo Paya, who has accused the Castro government of
orchestrating the horrific car crash that killed her father last summer.
She departed on a trip for Chile that had been held up because the
government wouldn't give her an "exit permit" under the old rules.

As of Jan.14, Cubans no longer need government-issued permits to come
and go, only a valid passport and a visa from their destination country.

Restrictions still remain on some government and military officials, as
well as star athletes and top scientists. But Cuban authorities have
told many of the island's most prominent opposition figures they can now
travel. They include Berta Soler, leader of the "Ladies in White" group
that holds weekly marches through Havana, and Guillermo Farinas, winner
of the European Union's 2010 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

At home in Cuba, those figures face frequent harassment and constant
surveillance by authorities, but once abroad, they will be able to raise
funds and network with other activists beyond reach of Cuban state
security agents.

Yet even as some Castro opponents launch their trips abroad, others have
been told they're not going anywhere. Cuba's new travel laws include
exceedingly broad, vague language that allows the government to deny a
passport to someone "for reasons of public interest," and several
dissidents say they've been turned down.

Some are unable to leave because they remain on probation, having been
freed from prison in the past few years through the intervention of the
Catholic Church. The new travel policy bars Cubans who have pending
criminal charges or who are on parole from receiving passports.

That has left dissident economist and former political prisoner Oscar
Espinosa Chepe, 72, in a bind. He's been hospitalized several times in
the past year as a result of failing health, and he's now wondering if
the government will let him go abroad to seek additional treatment. His
parole isn't up until 2023, he said, and he and his wife, fellow
activist Miriam Leiva, have yet to apply for new passports.

Still, Espinosa Chepe said he didn't think the government would be hurt
by additional public criticism from other dissidents traveling abroad.
"The government has made an intelligent move. It's trying to convey a
message of openness," he said. "It remains an authoritarian system, but
I think it's making positive steps with an eye on improving relations
with the US."

Asked whether his inability to leave Cuba has blunted his message over
the years, Espinosa Chepe said he didn't think so, noting that he
frequently conducts interviews by phone, and has even participated in
international academic conferences remotely. "I've said everything I've
wanted to say," he added. Continue reading