It is a small miracle that Yoani Sánchez will actually be attending the Movies that Matter Festival. Or maybe even a big miracle. For years she attempted to obtain an exit visa, which was refused to Cubans who openly criticise the Communist regime.
Mid-January 2013, a new law abolishing exit visa came into effect that entitles every Cuban to a passport and to travel abroad. Every Cuban, that includes Yoani Sánchez. She remained sceptical, but at the end of January she was suddenly in possession of the much-wanted document.
The abnormal as normal
‘On my way there it occurred to me that there is probably no other country in the world where delivering a passport has news value,’ Sánchez says. ‘But in Cuba the abnormal is accepted as being normal.’
‘Maybe the authorities realised the political price they would have to pay if they hold on to the ideological segregation of those wanting to leave the country. Or maybe they have come to the conclusion that letting critics travel causes less controversy than retaining them on the island.’
The freedom to travel is in some ways a test case for the rest of the world to see how serious the reforms in Cuba really are. ‘I am very critical about the speed and the thoroughness of Raúl Castro’s reforms’, says Sánchez. ‘I must say, however, that this might well be the boldest reform of all reforms implemented by Raúl Castro, having the most far-reaching political and social consequences.’
Strategies of oppression
The reforms in Cuba provide no guarantee that freedom of speech or press freedom will be established. Access to the Internet remains an issue. Sánchez: ‘It still costs a fortune to go online and there are few locations that have Internet access. The connection is incredibly slow, and a huge number of websites have been banned by the government.’
Moreover, the latest reforms do not put an end to the threats to which critics like Yoani Sánchez are subjected. ‘The nature of these threats has dramatically changed over the five years that I have been active as a blogger. At first, they were mainly physical. Now they tend to commit character assassination by putting critics in a bad daylight. That is a form of violence and oppression, too. They are very good at “pillorying” us in the media. They also weave a web of lies, disinformation, intrigues and distortions around a person, just to harm someone’s reputation, a strategy that is locally known as “murdering the messenger”. It doesn’t matter whether or not it actually represents your opinion, or whether the information you provide is true or false.’
‘In my case this is done by publishing articles full of libel and lies, in which they link me to the United States, stating that I work for the Americans, which is completely untrue. They use very aggressive terms like “mercenary”.’
Sánchez says that the authorities have taken a vicious stance now they know that she will be travelling abroad. ‘They know I will be given the opportunity to speak about my own experiences and about the projects, ideas and dreams I have for the future of Cuba. They know they cannot silence me.’
By Cees Zoon