03/16/13 - Businessweek - Yoani Sanchez Sees Faster Change in Cuba PostChavez
Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, on her first visit to the U.S., said
the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will help fuel economic
changes beyond the government's control on the Caribbean island.
"In recent months the pace of change has been accelerating, and not because
of the government's efforts," Sanchez said in an interview yesterday at
Bloomberg's headquarters in New York. "The death of Hugo Chavez and the
possible reduction of Venezuelan subsidies is one variable accelerating
this change. We're in uncharted territory."
Venezuela sends Cuba about 100,000 barrels of oil a day, helping President
Raul Castro's government undermine a U.S. trade embargo in exchange for
Cuban doctors sent to community clinics. Another 100,000 barrels per day
are sent to 18 Caribbean and Central American countries in the Petrocaribe
program. That aid could be reduced as interim President Nicolas Maduro
confronts a widening deficit, Heather Berkman, an analyst at the Eurasia
Group, said in a March 12 report.
Sanchez, who will meet lawmakers in Washington next week, said Castro's
economic changes to date have been too small because the government is
concerned greater economic freedoms will weaken its political power. She
dismissed Castro's Feb. 24 statement that he'll leave power after his
current term ends in 2018, saying that he's already had 54 years in power
as president and second-in-command under his 86-year-old brother, former
President Fidel Castro.
Sanchez, who was last detained by Cuban police in October after attending
the trial of a man charged in the driving death of another dissident, has
drawn tens of thousands of followers worldwide through her blog and use of
social media. President Barack Obama responded to Sanchez's questions in an
interview posted on the Huffington Post website in 2009 and she was named
among Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People" in 2008.
"Yoani has demonstrated profound courage in the face of adversity," U.S.
Congressman Albio Sires, a Democrat from New Jersey, said in a statement
Sanchez's New York visit, part of her first foreign travel after more than
five years of seeking permission to leave the island, follows Castro's
decision in January to ease some travel restrictions. Not all dissidents
have been allowed to leave, and Sanchez said she fears what may happen to
her or her family when she returns to Cuba.
Messages and e-mails to press officials at the Cuban Interests Section in
Washington and the Foreign Ministry in Havana weren't answered.
Venezuela is likely to prioritize oil shipments to Cuba and any reduction
would come in the "longer term," Berkman wrote in a March 12 report.
Countries including the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Jamaica are at
higher risk of seeing aid reduced, she said.
Maduro, who replaced Chavez following his March 5 death from cancer, said
this month that the government will "strengthen" Petrocaribe, without
giving more details.
Since Fidel began handing over presidential powers in 2006, his 81-year-old
brother has initiated measures to open Cuba's $61 billion economy,
including loosening of property laws, the creation of more cooperatives and
allowing private businesses such as taxis and mobile-phone companies. A vow
to dismiss 500,000 state workers hasn't been carried out.
"These reforms are not sufficient, but they are significant," said Ted
Henken, a sociology professor at Baruch College who helped arrange
Sanchez's New York trip. "The government is trying to control the demands
bubbling up from the people."
'Century of Dictators'
Sanchez, whose "Generation Y" blog has served as an outlet for her
frustrations with daily life under the Castro regime, said growing economic
independence will eventually erode the government's grip on society.
By offering economic opportunity, "an ice cream-making machine in Cuba
today could be as subversive as a dissident's statement," Sanchez said.
A transition to a more market-based economy should focus on aiding small
entrepreneurs, not established companies, Sanchez said. A failure to do so
could result in military leaders becoming businessmen with monopoly power
in different economic sectors, she said.
Latin Americans will also closely watch the U.S. role in any transition,
Sanchez said. If a transition isn't managed well, "we could have another
century of dictators and strongmen."
First Vice President Manuel Diaz-Canel, who would succeed Raul Castro if he
can't finish his term, was "named not for his abilities, but for his
loyalty," Sanchez said.
'Surrounded by Wolves'
"We really don't know who he is," she said. "He's managed to survive
surrounded by wolves because he hasn't stood out. He's probably the
unhappiest man in Cuba now."
Prior to arriving in New York yesterday, Sanchez's travels had taken her to
Mexico and Brazil, where she faced protests from pro-Castro groups who say
she is supported by the Central Intelligence Agency.
If she isn't allowed to return to Cuba, Sanchez said she'll have to sneak
back into the country where refugees often leave in hopes of making it to
"I'll become the first person to board a raft to get back into Cuba," she
To contact the reporter on this story: Bill Faries in New York at
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andre Soliani at
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