Georgetown’s current Yahoo! Fellow, Yoani Sánchez, met with Georgetown students last Friday to discuss her work as a censored journalist in Cuba, and to share her insight on Cuba’s situation since last December’s news. On December 17 last year, a day Sanchez remembers well, President Obama and Raul Castro came to an agreement on re-establishing relations between the two countries after more than 50 years of animosity. While the news erupted in headlines all over the world and resonated with a hopeful audience, Sanchez brings us back to the painful reality that is still present in Cuba, and of the slow steps that are being taken to normalize relations. She also turns our attention to the upcoming Summit of the Americas, a conference held in April in Panama, an opportunity in which leaders can further reach out to Castro in order to establish relations with the island, or not.
Sanchez expressed her optimistic views on the December 17 agreement while acknowledging the inevitable obstacles that these renewed relations will face. She expects that an open market between the two countries will certainly bring about positive economic consequences . More remittances, an amplification of Cuba’s private sector through new opportunities, and a slight liberalization of the press are among her expectations from the normalization of relations. Perhaps the most significant achievement stemming from the end of the embargo, Ms. Sanchez explains, will be how the Cuban government’s old excuses for poor performance will be rendered illegitimate. The oft-alleged symbol of David against Goliath—the American imperial power out to crush the small island—will hold even less credibility once relations resume and Cubans profit from them.
Nevertheless, Sanchez expects that the most difficult obstacle ahead will be changing the mentality Cubans have developed over years of dictatorial regime. “Fear,” she says, “is the greatest tool of the Castro regime,” and it is evident in all aspects of Cuban political culture. The few journalists the Castro regime is willing to tolerate often practice self-censorship, knowing that any form of opposition could result in terrible retaliation. In fact, fear of government is so hard-wired into Cubans, Sanchez claims, that locals shy away from speaking Castro’s name out loud, instead using a hand gesture to mimic his emblematic beard. The only alternative to fear is escaping the repression, and Sanchez points out this is one of the most unfortunate aspects of Cuba’s situation. Thousands of talented and ambitious Cubans decide to leave the islands to seek refuge, often in the United States. The resulting brain drain deprives Cuba of the hope for future economic restoration.
Cuban civil society was another important topic in Sanchez’s discussion with Georgetown students. She estimates that in Cuba roughly 10% of voters are pro-Castro because of ideological reasons or opportunism. On the other hand, another 10% stands in clear opposition to the government and appeals for democracy. In the middle, she claims, there is an 80% that will agree with whomever they believe offers them the greatest benefit and improvement of standard of living. While this group’s position has fluctuated erratically over the past years, Sanchez hopes that opening to trade will empower the private sector and ensure the 80% stands with the opposition.
The next political challenge for Cuba will be the Summit of the Americas taking place in Panama, where Cuba will once again participate in the OAS after more than 50 years. Sanchez laments the slow pace at which changes are occurring, if at all, and the secrecy behind the agreements. However, she thinks there is no turning back from the December 17 agreement, and that it is a matter of time before Cuba embraces further reforms, such as officially welcoming the Internet. Only time, and perhaps the upcoming Summit, will tell just how much change Cuba undergoes.