It’s hard to tell what’s most striking these days: Yoani Sánchez’s heroism or America’s hypocrisy.
Last week, when communist authorities tried to block Sánchez’s new digital newspaper, 14ymedio, Florida Senator Marco Rubio called her “one of Cuba’s most courageous” dissidents. And rightly so.
But he also called the internationally acclaimed blogger “an aspiring Cuban media entrepreneur.” And that’s where the inconsistency starts.
Even as Rubio exalts Sánchez as a dissident, he and every other Cuba-policy hardliner are essentially thwarting her as an entrepreneur – when in today’s Cuba the latter might be more important than the former.
This month, 44 prominent U.S. business and political figures, including a number of Cuban-Americans, signed a letter urging President Obama to loosen the Cuba trade embargo.
The aim: Allow Americans to bring more support – investment capital, telecom hardware, expertise exchanges – to the island’s rising number of independent capitalists now that Cuban leader Raúl Castro has, albeit grudgingly and haltingly, opened the economic reform window.
It was just the latest high-profile plea for engaging Cubans as a way of undermining their repressive dictatorship. The simple rationale is that 55 years of isolating Cuba have achieved little more than venting Cuban exile anger.
Predictably, hardliner reaction to the proposal has been air raid sirens. To hear most of the Cuban-American congressional caucus tell it, the letter all but exhorts Obama to be the keynote speaker at Cuba’s next Communist Party Congress. They insist that any embargo relaxation would be Castro-appeasing surrender – “people seeking business with the dictatorship,” as former Miami Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart told WLRN’s Elaine Chen.
The letter to Obama "is not rooted in something pure,” says Diaz-Balart, who likes to peg anyone who disagrees with him in the least on Cuba as a communist shill.
But if you support a transition to capitalism and democracy in Cuba, the hardliners’ agenda isn’t all that pure, either. They’re convinced that denying Cuba’s fledgling entrepreneurs more seed money, cell phones and sage advice – that keeping them in the micro-economic Middle Ages – is the best way to change Cuba.
This despite testimony from Cubans themselves that Raúl’s cautious but significant policy turns, like private real estate sales at home and freer travel abroad, have altered the tropical air. In fact, if the hardliners in the U.S. don’t believe me, they can consult the woman they’re calling their hero: Yoani Sánchez.
In a New York Times op-ed this week, Sánchez doesn’t pull any of her deadpan sarcasm while describing the gray, bleak life of Castro Cuba. But she also writes that due to Raúl’s “concessions,” the Cuban government is “trying to control a car that has been stranded for decades, but now that it is in motion, nobody knows which direction it will take – not even the driver.
“The Castro regime,” Sánchez adds, “has lost power with these small changes… Every little move toward flexibility has provided some economic relief to the administration and, simultaneously, a relative loss of control.”
That’s a trade-off, her article says, that ultimately bodes ill for the regime – certainly when the octogenarian Castro and his even more octogenarian brother Fidel are gone.
So why wouldn’t the Cuba-policy hardliners want to help accelerate that process? One answer is that it’s too mundane: It doesn’t fit their more biblical vision of a Cuban Spring in which the Castros are ousted by a fiery, exile-led uprising.
Another is that the hardliners are the Roman Catholic Church of geopolitics: After so many years of insisting their doctrine is right, it’s simply too difficult now to admit that any of it might be wrong.
Either way, this isn’t the first time Sánchez has contradicted them. While visiting the U.S. last year she argued against the embargo – calling it the “big bad wolf” the communist regime blames “for everything from the lack of food on our plates to the lack of liberty in the streets.”
Some Cuban dissidents do support the embargo, and I respect their arguments – especially since they, like Sánchez, are the ones on the ground in Cuba, if not in its jails.
But listening to hardliners in the U.S. canonize Sánchez when the Cuban regime tried to kibosh her work as an aspiring media entrepreneur – and then in the same breath demonize calls for America to encourage that very aspiration – is astonishing.
Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director at the Americas Council/Society of the Americas in New York and one of this month’s letter signatories, points out something else the hardliners forget: “Sánchez got her start as a blogger thanks in no small part to the kind of entrepreneurial aid she received from private-sector foreigners,” he says, “including hardware like flash drives,” which the letter promotes.
While praising Sánchez last week, Rubio called on “Yoani’s fellow journalists… to stand in solidarity with her.” I shall, Senator. Starting with this essay.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.