In defining the key moment of President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba, journalist and blogger Yoani Sanchez, who directs the site known as 14yMedio, doesn’t hesitate in naming the live press conference when – to the general astonishment of Cubans – President Raul Castro found himself obliged to respond to the question of a CNN reporter regarding the Cuban political prisoners.
That instant, charged with a historic symbolism, brought to mind a scene from writer Javier Cuevas’ masterpiece Anatomy of an instant, set during Spain’s February 23, 1981, coup d’etat. In the scene, ex-President Adolfo Suarez remains in his assigned Congressional seat in the semicircle while all of the other legislators, except for Santiago Carrillo and General Gutierrez Mellado, have hit the floor to protect themselves from the bullets of those perpetrating the coup. In Havana, on the other hand, Castro appeared irascible and off guard, showcasing his worst authoritarian disposition to his people, while he navigated the questions of the international press. This paradoxical moment has been engraved in the minds of Cubans, and may in the future represent the beginning of a change of era.
Through a Skype connection that came and went, we spoke with Yoani about how Cubans live – those in the party, those in the streets, and those who are dissidents; the thawing of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana, amid hope and outsized expectations; and the uncertainty of a country “that can go two steps forward and three steps backwards. We also talked about the celebration with the irreverent music of the Rolling Stones, and how Cuba has felt these days less of an island and more “part of the world.”
Yoani, what’s the final assessment of Cubans regarding Obama’s visit to Cuba? I imagine there are several different visions.
Yes, the government has one account, which seems to be fairly critical and negative judging by the reflection and the comments made by Fidel Castro; these were pretty aggressive against Obama. Another final balance is that of everyday Cubans who have invested a lot of hope and illusions in the outcome of this visit. People think that “Saint Obama” will solve all our problems. And there’s yet another set of conclusions on the part of the opposition, the critical sector: this group received a huge boost from Obama’s meeting with them, but they want a little more – stronger pronouncements regarding human rights, freedom for the political prisoners, and other changes.
How much play did Obama’s speech get? It was transmitted live on Cuban television, but after that did the press and the official radio stations continue to circulate it, or cover it up?
That’s a good question, because whoever didn’t see it live, didn’t get to see it. After the transmission of Obama speaking in the Havana Grand Theater, the complete speech was neither transcribed nor published, to the surprise of many. They tried to offer little clips or fragments of the speech that supported the official version. At any rate, there’s a deeply submerged and illegal Cuba with alternative networks for the distribution of information.
Right at this moment, a pirated copy of the video is circulating from hand to hand and I can assure you that it’s very popular. Nothing is more popular than the forbidden and Obama’s speech is right now in the zone of the illicit.
Obama placed a lot of emphasis on the potential for social and economic change that lies in the self-employed workers’ sector. What real weight does this group have?
We’re talking about a group of Cubans numbering less than half a million who can make their way in a sector that the government calls cuentapropistas, a euphemism for privately employed in occupations that generally involve services, food vending, etc., but which are almost never true professions. You can’t be a self-employed lawyer, architect or construction crew. The fact that Obama aimed his speech at them seems to me very intelligent, because it’s a sector that could change Cuba, but right now it’s very limited by the high taxes, the absence of a wholesale market, the government oversight itself, and above all by the suspicion that a system that has declared itself Marxist-Leninist harbors towards private business people and workers.
Unlike the aforementioned gathering, the one that Obama sustained with the leaders of civic organizations that promote political rights and freedom of the press was private. What degree of significance did this meeting have?
It was a big boost to the critical and dissident sector. On the one hand, it was the first time that a foreign president who visited the island met with such a varied group of activists. Listening for over an hour and forty minutes is a sign of respect. From now on, the next functionaries and diplomats to visit Cuba may follow his example. On the other hand, it was also a huge boost for the independent press. The fact that at least four reporters who are not recognized by the government could enter there, myself among them, take pictures and interview functionaries at the highest level that accompanied Obama was a way of saying: there exists a press beyond Granma.
There is a sector of civil society that makes demands and exercises certain autonomy: is that an irreversible opening, or could it be squashed again by the forces of repression?
In Cuba you never know. It’s like a sinister dance that can go two steps forward and three steps back. But I have the impression that Castroism has lost a lot of strength. In the first place, because the historic generation are approaching their nineties. On the other hand, the “Obama coup”, although merely symbolic because there’s been no great change since he left, has touched certain chords in Cubans about their national identity and it’s going to be hard for the Castro forces to recuperate. Castroism can’t win love or hypnotize people. Obama has managed things that the Castro followers can’t compete with, such as talking with the best-known Cuban humorist, playing dominoes, eating in a private restaurant. He has moved along some paths that leave Raul and Fidel Castro far behind.
In the press conference with Obama and Raul Castro, Castro was asked about the political prisoners and he promised to free them if he received a list. What happened afterwards?
Cubans of my generation watched the President give a press conference for the first time – it was unprecedented. That was one of the most important parts of Obama’s visit, shining a spotlight on Raul Castro’s discomfort, because he looked angry, out of place, surprised, and then said something that in my opinion is important: he stated that if he received the list he would free the political prisoners. If it’s not a dictatorship and if we have a Rule of Law with a judicial system, how is it possible for a president to say – “I’ll free them tonight”? If Obama’s visit served to make clear that Raul Castro can’t face a free press, then it has been very useful. It laid bare the authoritarianism and the dictatorship that we experience on the island. After that press conference I understand that several independent organizations turned in the list of people in prison, but there was no liberation.
What can be expected from the upcoming Cuban Communist Party congress that will be held next April 16?
A lot and very little is expected. Why the contradiction? “A lot” because the party membership itself has been giving signs that they’re unhappy that there hasn’t been a public discussion during the last months of the topics to be covered. There’s a part of the membership that believes in the party and believes that this seventh congress could resolve some vital questions for the organization. But on the part of the citizens, very little is expected, because a lot of people no longer believe that the changes can come from within the Party. The problem that the Congress faces is that whatever happens – whatever it does or doesn’t do – everything will be seen as a reaction to Obama’s visit. If they make a change, it will be because Obama pressured; if they make no change, it will be seen as their reply to Obama. They’re pretty well trapped in this dynamic.
You direct a digital site, 14yMedio, whose stories we’ve reproduced in Confidential. Can it be read in Cuba without interruption or censorship?
Unfortunately, since the day we were born on May 21, 2014 – and we’ll soon be two years old – we’ve been
technologically blockaded. The Government has implemented a “filter” that keeps Cubans from directly accessing 14yMedio. Nonetheless, I should clarify that I live in a country where there are 1001 ways to leap over the censorship. That is, everyone knows the way to enter into a censored site, a forbidden page, an inaccessible content. That cheers me, because I believe that we’re an island that specializes in opening windows when the doors are closed.
Obama left and Mick Jagger with the Rolling Stones arrived. What did the concert leave behind for Cubans?
In the first instance, a sensation of universality. Remember, we live on an island and as a Cuban poet says, it’s the damn circumstance of water everywhere. So the fact that a nation that has missed out for decades on hearing voices like The Beatles, Whitney Houston, Freddie Mercury, musical personalities that left this world without ever even setting foot on our island, could at least receive the Rolling Stones was a very positive sign for Cubans. We feel like: “Wow! We’re part of the world!” It also felt like a victory for many people who suffered the censorship of a certain type of music, especially rock. Now they suddenly saw the officials receive with fifes and drums those same musicians that decades before had been stigmatized, that were the anti-new man, the enemy of that socialist man that the Castroists wanted to form who thought only about work and never about entertainment, the total opposite of what Mick Jagger is. The Rolling Stones concert also touched many symbolic chords.
This article has been translated by from Spanish by Havana Times.