02/23/13 - Wall Street Journal - A Visit Angers Brazil's ProCubans
By JOHN LYONS and JOSÉ DE CÓRDOBA
SÃO PAULO, Brazil-After winning permission to leave Cuba, dissident blogger
Yoani Sánchez chose Latin America's biggest democracy, Brazil, to start a
Months long global tour. Unexpectedly, pro-Cuba protesters have disrupted
her appearances since she arrived in Brazil on Monday, prompting police to
assign guards to protect her.
In São Paulo late Thursday, some 200 members of a socialist youth group,
many wearing fake red noses, burst into an event at a bookstore, forcing
organizers to cancel it. One protester held up a sign: "Cuba, the only
country with a cancer vaccine."
For many Brazilians, the headline-making attacks are a national
embarrassment. In one dramatic scene in Bahia this week, the 71-year-old
Brazilian Sen. Eduardo Suplicy put himself between an angry mob and Ms.
Sánchez to protect her. "Have the courage to listen!" he shouted. They
didn't, and the event was canceled for safety reasons.
Yoani Sanchez was a clandestine blogger in Cuba when The Wall Street
Journal wrote about her in Dec. 2007. Today she is arguably the most widely
read Castro critic. This WSJ video from 2007 shows Sanchez in the early
months of her blogging career. Photo: AP.
The protests expose a little understood aspect of Latin America's
democracies. Five decades after Fidel Castro led Cuba's revolution, much of
the world has written off his regime amid allegations of human-rights
abuses. Yet in Latin America, vehement supporters of the Castros can be
found everywhere from government palaces to university campuses.
"Many in Latin America's left continue to think that most of what goes on
in Cuba is fantastic, and what is not fantastic is the fault of the U.S.
embargo," said Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister,
referring to the U.S. strategy to economically isolate Cuba's Communist
government. Mr. Castañeda, once supported Castro and now rejects him.
A poor region long governed by elites, Latin America saw an explosion of
leftist protest movements and armed insurgencies challenge the status quo
from Mexico to Argentina and Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s. Today,
left-leaning presidents govern much of the region along a spectrum of
models, from the market-oriented social democracy of Brazil to the
socialism of Hugo Chávez's Venezuela.
A waif-thin 37-year-old writer, Ms. Sánchez seems an unlikely candidate to
attract jeering mobs. But in 2007, she started publishing vignettes about
the daily privations of life in Castro's Cuba in a blog called Generation
Y. Reporting from someone who actually lives in Cuba has become a poignant
challenge to the view of Castro supporters elsewhere that the island is a
Today, her writing is translated by volunteers into more than a dozen
languages, and she is arguably the most widely read chronicler of the
"Why are we talking so much about Cuba and Yoani Sánchez? Because this
woman is living proof of the Castros' unfulfilled promise of liberty, a
promise that seduced and involved, from the start, some of the greatest
intellects of our continent," wrote O Estado de S. Paulo columnist Eugênio
Bucci on Thursday.
In Brazil, Ms. Sánchez is responding to the attacks by noting that people
back in Havana don't have the right to such protests. "I am a self-taught
democrat. I believe in the plurality of ideas. But when it comes to verbal
or physical violence, that's no longer plurality, that's fanaticism," she
says.She sees Latin America's attachment to the "illusion" of Cuba this
way: "There are young people attracted to the idea of revolution. And there
are not so young people who can't accept that the ideas they believed in
are defunct, or for whom it is too late in life to say 'I was wrong.' "
Support for Castro may seem surprising in a region where countries like
Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay shed dictatorshipsof their own and embraced
democracy in the 1980s. The same countries today key are reservoirs of
support for what is the world's longest-serving dictator. When two Cuban
boxers tried to defect in Brazil in 2007, Brazil scooped them up and sent
them back to Cuba.
Explanations for why vary. For one, many Latin American leaders today came
of age opposing their own countries' right-wing dictatorships. They drew
inspiration from the Castro revolution and some even spent time in Cuba.
As a young woman, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was jailed and
tortured by Brazil's dictatorship for her participation in a Marxist
Indeed, even in Brazil's increasingly market-oriented economy, you don't
have to look far to find a professed Marxist. Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo,
the man responsible for soccer's 2014 World Cup in Brazil, is a leader of
the Communist Party of Brazil.
Meanwhile, at Latin America's universities nostalgia remains high for
decades past when the campuses were outposts of leftist opposition against
authoritarian governments. At Mexico's largest university, Unam, the
economics department auditorium is named for Ho Chi Minh and emblazoned
with murals of revolutionaries such as Cuba's Che Guevara.
And in a region where leaders of various political stripes have quietly
resented U.S. might, Mr. Castro gets a free pass as the man who thumbed his
nose at Uncle Sam and got away with it.
To be sure, many observers such as the Cuban writer Carlos Montaner suspect
that the Castro government is behind the protests. The notion that Cuba was
seeking to smear Ms. Sánchez gained weight after the Rousseff
administration said a senior official had received a dossier from the Cuban
Embassy smearing Ms. Sánchez. Brazil says it destroyed the document.
Efforts to reach the Cuban Embassy in Brasilia for comment were
"There's an old relationship of ideological solidarity and gratitude for
the help the Cuban government gave these people in the past," Mr. Montaner
Some view Ms. Sánchez's ability to continue writing, and now travel, as
evidence that Cuba is changing. Leaving Cuba is still not a universal right
for Cubans; She was allowed to leave Cuba this year as part of Raúl
Castro's move to ease travel restrictions.
Giving Cuba a free pass may carry more of a cost for countries like Brazil
seeking a role in global affairs. Human-rights activists slammed Brazil in
2010 after then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva compared Cuba's
hunger-striking political prisoners to common criminals.
Brazil's support for Castro could backfire if Cuba becomes a democracy some
day. "There's been a lack of toughness or frankness [from Brazil] when it
comes to talking about human rights on the island. I would recommend a more
energetic position, because the people don't forget," Ms. Sánchez said.
Write to John Lyons at email@example.com
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