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‘Cubans Want to Fly’: Dissident Reflects on Freedom and Oppression

April 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Blogger Yoani Sanchez, called the most famous Cuban not named Castro, writes about freedom, oppression and life as a dissident in her home country. In this interview from WNET's MetroFocus, Sanchez talks with Rafael Pi Roman about how her country has suffered, and whether the government is being transformed or weakened.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, a conversation with a Cuban dissident.

Blogger Yoani Sanchez has been called the most famous living Cuban not named Castro. For six years, her online posts about life in Cuba have attracted millions of readers around the world. In 2002, Sanchez fled Cuba. But unlike most Cubans who leave, she returned two years later to press for change on the island.

And the last decade has seen change. Earlier this year, the government lifted the travel ban, allowing most citizens freedom to come and go. Sanchez is now in the middle of a three-continent tour, where she’s openly criticized the Cuban government.

While in New York, she sat down with one of our media colleague at WLIW in New York. Correspondent Rafael Pi Roman of the program MetroFocus talked with Sanchez about life under a totalitarian regime and her hopes for a new Cuba.

RAFAEL PI ROMAN, WLIW: You have written that when you decided to return to Cuba, you promised yourself that you would live in Cuba as a free person, regardless of the consequences. What have been the consequences?

YOANI SANCHEZ, Cuban Blogger: Well, yes.

I told myself that I wouldn’t return to the mask. I wouldn’t return to the pretense. I wouldn’t return to the silence. From that moment, a new chapter began in my life, a chapter that has brought with it many reprisals and consequences, for example, being watched, being stopped by state security, knowing that anywhere I go, there could be someone informing, filming and photographing what I do, and losing many friends, friends who are afraid to come close to my house or to me, also the arbitrary detentions, the arrests, the insults, the threats, the not being able to leave my country for five years.

RAFAEL PI ROMAN: How much have things changed in Cuba since Fidel handed over power to his brother Raul almost seven years ago?

YOANI SANCHEZ: I can categorically say that nothing has advanced in terms of citizen rights or civil rights.

In fact, I do notice a change in the repression. But it’s been a change in style, rather than a change for the better. But Raul’s style is one of repressing, without leaving any legal fingerprints.

Fidel Castro repressed his opponents in grand, theatrical style and would condemn them to long prison sentences, while Raul has used more occult methods that leave the victims without even the possibility of proving they have been repressed.

RAFAEL PI ROMAN: How do you respond to those who say that the very fact that you’re here speaking freely and critically about the Cuban government shows there have been profound changes in Cuba?

YOANI SANCHEZ: I think the fact that I and several other activists have been able to leave Cuba in the last few weeks and have been expressing ourselves through the microphones of the world is not a sign of transformation, but of weakness.

The Cuban government can no longer hold back what’s happening. It can’t stop it for many reasons, but, fundamentally, because of the growing number of critical voices within Cuba, and also because technology has allowed us to gain a visibility which is protecting us.

Social networks like Facebook and Twitter now serve as a protective shield for us.

RAFAEL PI ROMAN: But, as you know, a lot of the supporters of the government say that there hasn’t been a manifestation, a rebellion against the system, because many Cubans, or most Cubans, if not all, support the system, and they support it because they want to protect the social conquests of the revolution, like health care and free education.

How do you respond to that?

YOANI SANCHEZ: Well, let me respond with a metaphor that I like very much, the metaphor of the bird in the cage.

To say that Cubans have settled for a change of limited liberties in exchange for some birdseed and water, which would be in this case the education and health care systems, I think would be very unjust. It’s very unjust to reduce us to a condition of servility, of citizens genetically incapable of enjoying liberty.

This is completely false. Cubans want to fly. We want to leave the cage, just as any individual in any part of the planet would want. The problem is that the cage is very well made. The bars very thick. And, by the way, neither the birdseed nor the water is all that wonderful either.

RAFAEL PI ROMAN: Oswaldo Paya, the man who many considered the Vaclav Havel Cuba, died last year in a car accident under very mysterious circumstances.

Are you in any way afraid of your physical well-being, of your safety, when you return to Cuba?

YOANI SANCHEZ: When you live under a totalitarian regime and know that danger and risk can come from everywhere, the fear of death, of physical harm, of threats to your family, of social and physical death can lead you to paralysis, to doing nothing, in the hope that, one day, the regime will forget about you or forgive you.

Or you can simply continue to struggle. There are many ways to react to fear. I tell my friends that, since I was very little, whenever something frightened me, I would run towards it. Others may hide and stay under the bed, but fear will never stop me from doing what I do.

RAFAEL PI ROMAN: What are your hopes for the future of Cuba?

YOANI SANCHEZ: I would be happy with a pluralistic Cuba, an inclusive Cuba that can fit all Cubans, basically, a Cuba that is difficult to govern, where there are long discussions in the legislature just to change one line of a law, and where those who govern don’t see themselves as chosen messiahs or think they have the right to exercise any power, other than that granted them by the sovereign citizens.

I would be happy with that, with a Cuba that accepts plurality and respects it.

GWEN IFILL: To see more of that interview, you can follow a link on our website.