Although barely registering in the American mainstream media, the recent trip to the U.S. by noted Cuba-based dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez has had a profound impact on the Cuban-American community and most likely on Cubans on the island. Ms. Sanchez has spoken to a wide cross section of Cuban-American groups including those opposed and in favor of the continuing U.S. embargo and travel ban on Cuba. Unlike prior visits to the U.S. by leading Cuban dissidents such as the late Oswaldo Paya, Ms. Sanchez's visit was not met by strongly worded attacks from U.S.-based Cuba hardliners. Ms. Sanchez was instead greeted by overflow and enthusiastic crowds everywhere she spoke in Miami. Her optimistic message of hope and reconciliation was eloquently delivered and struck a chord among a broad swath of the Cuban-American community. For many, Ms. Sanchez rekindled the long dormant hope that Cuba can become a free and prosperous nation again. For this, Ms. Sanchez has been vilified in the Cuban government-controlled press as a CIA stooge -- a sure sign that her message is reaching more people on the island than had previously been thought.
Ms. Sanchez's eloquent declaration that Cubans in the U.S. and on the island are one people who together can build a better Cuban society breathed new life into an often acrimonious relationship. The Cuban government's unrelenting demonization of Cuban exiles while gladly accepting their monetary remittances has played a major role in this dissonant brotherly relationship.
As a Cuban American who has traveled to Cuba several times, I am one of those for whom Ms. Sanchez's articulate and reasoned discourse has renewed my faith that Cuba can change for the better. During my last trip to Cuba (in 2007), I left the country disillusioned by the perceived apathy of the average Cuban I met. Despite complaining voraciously about the many failings of the Castro regime, most did little to actively work for change. The few dissidents I met, while exceptionally brave, seemed isolated from Cuban society and did not present a forward or comprehensive vision of a country free of communist tyranny. I vowed never to return to Cuba until the country of my birth was free -- an unlikely proposition given the strong grip of the Cuban government on virtually all aspects of life on the island.
Ms. Sanchez has changed my view on the future of Cuba. I suspect she has done the same for many of my compatriots in the U.S. and on the island. Armed with a sparkling intellect, a Twitter account with 472,000 followers (@yoanisanchez), and an influential blog, Ms. Sanchez has accurately detailed the trials of daily life in Cuba. Perhaps more importantly, Ms. Sanchez has given Cubans everywhere a glimpse of what a free Cuba could look like and we liked what we saw. She spoke about a Cuba that can compete globally using the intellectual know-how of its people and not just the beauty of its beaches. Ms. Sanchez was emphatic that free enterprise and private initiative were the only ways to alleviate the crushing poverty that Cubans have lived under for 53 years and counting. She spoke about the many Cubans who dream of a country based on the rule of law so they can harvest the entrepreneurial gifts that Cubans in the US have so successfully used.
Ms. Sanchez emphasized that a free Cuba would require knowledge, experience and investment dollars from the exile community to rebuild the country. There can little doubt that Ms. Yoani has inspired many in the Cuban-American community to seriously ponder how to participate in the coming Cuban awakening. Before her visit, this was a topic that was only discussed in vague terms by many Cuban Americans. Ms. Sanchez brought it toward the forefront of our community's consciousness.
By stating that U.S. policy enables the Castro regime to excuse its many failings, Ms. Sanchez also likely changed many minds in the exile community on U.S. policy toward Cuba. For those of us who have wanted the embargo and travel ban lifted, Ms. Sanchez's words were bittersweet. While she may have gathered more support for changes to U.S. policy, Ms. Sanchez made it clear that the embargo and travel ban play important roles in enabling the Cuban government to remain in power. The argument that a unilateral lifting of the U.S. embargo and travel ban is the best way to foment change on the island, while true, is too counterintuitive and subtle to generate enough of a groundswell of support to force a change in US policy.
As someone who has testified twice in front of the U.S. Congress , written op-eds and countless letters to the editor all in favor of lifting the travel ban and embargo, it is unnerving to realize that advocating a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba while the Castro brothers remain in power is a fruitless exercise. Nevertheless, acknowledging this truth can open new avenues for Cuban Americans to help hasten the day when Cuba is free.
Instead of spending time, money and energy on changing U.S. policy, we should help groups that help Cubans on the island connect with each other and with compatriots around the world. As we have seen with Ms. Sanchez's tweets and blog, the power of technology in promoting change in Cuba is undeniable. All that's missing are more Cubans with mobile phones, thumb drives and one day, internet connections. The U.S.-based Roots of Hope organization has been active in sending mobile phones to Cuba and deserves the support of all Americans.
Several U.S.-based charities such as the Catholic Church affiliated Friends of Caritas Cubana also provide direct food and medical aid to people on the island. By doing so, these groups not only alleviate human suffering, they also help reduce Cubans' dependence on their government for food and healthcare. This can only help lead Cubans to think more independently.
Yoani Sanchez has taught us that a woman with a mobile phone and intermittent access to the Internet can be a powerful force for a change in a country that has had decades of oppression and has little technological social connectivity. She has also managed to unite Cubans on both sides of the Florida straits like no one before. Ms. Sanchez deserves the admiration of freedom -loving people everywhere.