The Cuban independent journalist is critical of the Castro regime, and wants more free speech for her country.
Yoani Sánchez is the first Distinguished Presidential Fellow at the University of Miami. The well-known Cuban independent journalist has gained fame by her brazen coverage of every-day life on the island, which she first chronicled in her blog Generation Y. In 2014, Sánchez launched the digital newspaper 14ymedio, which offers a fresh voice on the island with exclusive national news, highlighting not only political and economic developments but also social and cultural activities.
A fierce defender of free speech, Sánchez is an educated observer of Cuban society. She visited UM in January 2017 to meet with students and faculty members and sat down with UM News to talk about various topics concerning Cuba.
Daily Life in Cuba
UM News: You are a philologist, a journalist, a great observer, and great Cuban citizen. How is your day-to-day life in Cuba?
Yoani Sánchez: Well, I have a very peculiar life in Cuba in the sense that I direct newspaper media, el diario 14ymedio, which is an independent and legalized newspaper. My daily dynamic has that vertigo of searching for information, of journalistic editing that has driven my passion for the profession. But it’s also turned me into a rara avis within the Cuban reality because the majority of people I know who work for the State follow the adage, “we act as though we work, and the State acts as though it pays us.” That is, it’s a cycle of simulation where people give the least possible effort because they feel making an effort doesn’t change anything.
But for someone like me who has to make an effort every day because there is a newspaper that requires news and information, contacting people in the provinces or reporters, then, suddenly, one goes against that pervasive inefficiency, against parsimony, against the motto of, “not today, but maybe tomorrow.” It’s quite difficult from a work and news information point of view because it’s as if we function on a different frequency from reality.
UM News: For the everyday Cuban, we speak a lot about the poor infrastructure and lack of food, water and electricity. Have you noticed if that has improved?
Sánchez: For the able-bodied Cuban, the most negative effect is in terms of food supply. It’s deteriorated. More tourists arrive in the country and they are people who have a much higher buying power than that of the average Cuban. So they are willing to pay an amount for a piece of fruit, a beer, a small plate of rice and beans that the average Cuban cannot pay.
It’s incredible because one would think that a country that receives four million tourists a year and increasing remittances would have an improved economy. But 2016 ended with a decrease in the gross national product by 0.9 percent. That is felt in daily life.
The poorest people find that there isn’t anything, or that they can’t pay for what there is. So I can say that that there is an increase in the material needs and an increase in prices. Above all, there’s a feeling that the economy has collapsed to a point.
On the U.S.-Cuba Relationship
UM News: How do you see the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba after the Obama decision to resume diplomatic relations?
Sánchez: The Cuba of today is contrasted. It is a Cuba where there’s a small, prosperous private sector, with attractive restaurants but, on the other hand, there’s also an increase in poverty for people on pensions, retired people, the black population, the rural population. After two years of normalization in diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, the island is very far from what was predicted.
UM News: We are in a period of great transition here in the U.S. Many people believe President Trump will be a hardliner with Cuba and rescind remittances and travel to the island. What impact do you believe that will have on the island?
Sánchez: It would be profoundly negative. That’s the great fear that the majority of Cubans have now, that there will be a step backward and that there will be a decrease in something so sensitive for survival, like the remittances. We aren’t just talking about the remittances that end up in a private business so it can prosper. We’re talking about the remittances that sustain so many people, for example, seniors on the island, who, if it weren’t for their emigrated children sending them some money every month, would not be able to put a plate of food on the table every day. So, there is fear among the population because they know that they are dependent on the outside.
People are also afraid tourism might decrease because the private sector is structured to benefit from tourism. Not only the grand, luxurious restaurants but also the smallest business owners and those in the informal economy—the entrepreneur who sells bananas on the side of the road or the woman who washes clothes in the house rented to tourists. That whole economic framework that has proliferated around tourism could suffer badly.
Would that suffering bring about a rebellion? I don’t think so because people are so afraid. Most of the generations of Cubans growing up under this system don’t even imagine that they can protest.
UM News: Is it the same fear that you have mentioned about people leaving the island?
Sánchez: I have had the journalistic fortune of hearing the arguments from both sides. On January 12, 2017 when the end of the “wet foot-dry foot” policy was announced, it was probably the day that Obama’s popularity plummeted among many Cubans who live in the country. Every family had at least someone who was trying to leave, who was already en route to the United States or who was on the island selling his few belongings or his property to pay for the ticket to the U.S. taking any route necessary.
Nevertheless, in Miami, many people criticized the use and abuse of the wet foot-dry foot policy, saying that thousands of Cubans arrived every year claiming they were politically persecuted, and they would receive humanitarian assistance, and then after a year and a day [when they received U.S. residency], they’d return to the island as if nothing had happened. So I’ve heard those two opinions.
I believe that it was unsustainable for the United States to continue to maintain that open opportunity. No country can receive 58,000 Cubans a year, give them support, including migrant benefits, without that beginning to take a toll.
Cuba is like a pressure cooker where the fire, the heat created by repression, the lack of products, the restriction of provisions, the lack of hope, that was all channeled through the escape valve that was emigration. Obama put a plug in the cooker, he closed that valve.
UM News: How do you view the tourists?
Sánchez: There is a bit of everything. There’s the tourist who comes to leave his garbage, like beer cans, thrown on the beach. There is the tourist who doesn’t go outside the walls of his state-sanctioned housing and he thinks that is Cuba. There is the tourist in the air-conditioned bus who views reality through his little window and then returns to his country and believes he knows Cuba. But there are also people who escape those touristic bubbles.
Today, we are in a country where people have more information about the outside, not just from newspapers and officials, but rather information transmitted by people, by society at large.
When, for example, a Canadian, North American, or Dominican tourist arrives in Cuba and meets a Cuban professional and they exchange stories and that professional realizes that that tourist earns 10 times more a month in his country, perhaps for a lower-status profession, then that is an effect of change. The technology also helps because there are those who arrive and give away a USB memory stick or pen drive, an old laptop, an external hard drive, and that changes peoples’ lives a little.
On the Environment
UM News: One of the fears that many conscientious Americans have is that if tourism continues to increase, that Cuba will be lost, especially in terms of its environment, its coral reefs, its beaches. What do you think about that?
Sánchez: I don’t share the opinion, a la Robinson Crusoe, that it’s better to be abandoned on an island to preserve the island’s natural environment. Quite the opposite. Cuba is experiencing an ecological and environmental drama that’s not that well-known because there isn’t freedom of the press that allows it to be published.
But we Cubans know well the damage done by economic centralism and governmental volunteerism. The mass plantings, for example, of sugar cane in the ‘70s were catastrophic; that razed forests and natural growth. The last ones [plantings] that they have done on the coast, that has destroyed stretches and stretches of mangroves. Thus, the idea that the island has been preserved like how Christopher Columbus found it, and it has been cared for, no, I don’t share that idea.
I believe that the greatest challenges that Cuba has are to really open itself to a democratic system, to freedom, to foreign investment and preserve what nature has given us.
UM News: What about access to water and water quality on the island?
Sánchez: For my entire childhood and my adolescence I bathed with a bucket and a pitcher. I grew up in central Havana and, like many others in the country, very rarely had the privilege of opening a faucet and having water flow out.
We live in a country that has few aquifer reserves and those few have serious problems. It is a long, narrow island and the rain comes heavily and infrequently. We have had a very intense drought during the past few years. We’ve also had a series of phenomena, but I’m not a specialist, on the topic of damming rivers, which has brought deterioration to the water table in the provinces. The sea has come in and has salinized part of the rivers and part of the freshwater along the coasts.
There isn’t a public debate about the subject of water. The government suggests solutions but many of them are never carried out. But it is true that more and more Cubans depend on water provided by tank trucks, called pipas in Cuba. This brings an economic division of water. Those who have money to pay for two pipas a week have water. And in the poor neighborhoods, families with less income either have no water or they have water more sporadically.
On Dissidents and Political Activism
UM News: We’ve heard that, following the restoration of diplomatic relations on the December 17, 2014, there is more repression on the island against dissidents. Have you felt this?
Sánchez: It seems the government of Raul Castro has maintained a firm hand against the opposition. He has tried to send a message that he is not going to permit, for example, associations of parties, groups, or other organizations not recognized by the government.
But, I have to say, the increase in repression and increase in controls is due to an increase in activism. If you looked at Cuban civil society years ago, you would’ve found ideologically well-defined opposition groups and parties, like Christian Democrats, Christian Liberals, Social Democrats, etc. Now, when one takes a look at civil society there is a true kaleidoscope. There are independent bloggers, groups that defend LGBT rights, there’s a non-governmental press that tries to spread information, there are pro-press protection associations, political parties, groups that advocate for women’s rights, and particularly for women in rural areas. Recently, in the eastern part of the country, a movement was founded for protecting the rights of ordinary prisoners. Before this, civil society had been primarily concerned with the protection of political prisoners specifically.
Officialdom is right to be worried because clearly there is diversification and what we could call an increase in nonconformity. So, I believe that repression is proportional, too, to the growth of civil society.
UM News: Is there dialogue between civil society groups?
Sánchez: In my view, technology has had a lot of influence. I’m not just talking about people who may have a blog and publish a story on Twitter or a digital newspaper. I’m also talking about the ability to have a conversation through SMS [text messaging] on a cell phone. In Cuba, right now there are nearly four million cell phone lines.
But we are still the country in the western hemisphere that has the least penetration of cell phones. Even so, for social activism, for opposition, for independent groups, it has been very important having a mechanism for instant communication. It’s true that it’s a controlled mechanism, that the government cuts the lines, strategically, on certain days and that many times messages are censored; but in any case, the new technology works for developing dialogue between civil society groups.
Another element is that a good deal of information about civic movements in other parts of the world has come to Cuba and we find out about them so quickly. Before, it was a matter of being for or against a political party. Now, I believe Cuban activism has begun to understand it’s no longer a matter of ideologies, but rather of rights.
On Health Care
UM News: The Cuban revolution was known as a revolution that offered free health care and education to all of its citizens. Tell me about the state of health care in Cuba.
Sánchez: In terms of health care, the widespread access seems very positive to me. There are polyclinics, medical offices, family doctors and hospitals in a wide variety of Cuban zones, from the densest urban areas to the most rural. Havana has sophisticated hospitals that attend to tourists who travel to the island and there are also separate hospitals for the military. But the problem is when one goes outside the circle of power and arrives at the hospitals that we ordinary Cubans visit.
The hospital buildings are in poor condition. Many of the hospitals are large, but you find rudimentary problems, such as no water in the bathrooms, light switches that are pulled out, ruined mattresses, no pillows. There is no air conditioning and a family that has a relative in the hospital has to take their own fan. So it is a calamitous situation, shameful, and embarrassing for medical professionals and patients.
A bright spot, I think, is the professional capacity of the doctors, aside from normal differences of some being more talented than others, like anywhere.
The problem is that many of those professionals are now realizing that they are totally underpaid. And then it’s very shameful when one goes to see a specialist, a neurosurgeon, for example, and it’s known that that physician doesn’t earn more than USD $60 a month and who probably has to ask his patients for help to buy new tires for his car or to buy new shoes for his children. It humiliates the professional and encourages acts of corruption, like bribes or gifts that end up only benefitting those patients who are able to give.
UM News: How do you see Cuba in five years?
Sánchez: Cuba is a complicated and difficult country because the problems are so large that I don’t believe that a period of five years will manage to solve or begin to solve them.
I think that, as a journalist, there will be many stories to tell, many human dramas. Lamentably, newspapers are fed a great deal by those human tragedies.
From my personal and family perspective, it will still be a very difficult country because there are no signs that the government is going to implement a process of political and economic reforms at a depth that allows Cubans to have a better life on the island.
- BARBARA GUTIERREZ / UM News