HAVANA, Cuba — For most of the past 50 years, the Cuban government has had a straightforward strategy for keeping opposition activists from spreading their criticism abroad and linking up to international sympathizers.
It wouldn’t let them leave.
By blocking dissidents from traveling, the Castro government could punish their activism and limit the unflattering things they might tell foreign audiences about life under tropical socialism.
Over the decades, countless speaking invitations for Cuban dissidents from universities and foreign parliaments went unfulfilled. Awards were never picked up. Prize money went uncollected.
Now many of those activists are packing their bags. Following the broad travel liberalization implemented last month by President Raul Castro, some of Cuba’s best-known opposition figures have been told they’re free to go — and return.
Most notably, dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez has embarked an 80-day tour of Latin America, Europe and the United States, with stops in New York City, Washington, DC, and Miami. The 37-year-old creator of the blog Generation Y is also planning to visit the offices of Twitter, Google and Facebook.
Sanchez says Cuban authorities have denied her permission to leave more than 20 times over the past five years, but finally issued her a passport at the end of January. She boarded a flight Sunday evening from Havana to Brazil via Panama.
“The Cuban government shouldn’t even dream that I won’t come back!” she told her more than 400,000 Twitter followers over the weekend. “My grandchildren will be born on this island, they’ll bury me at the base of a tree so I can live on!”
Now the question is: Will the trips abroad by Sanchez and other Cuban dissidents further damage Castro’s image abroad? Or will the very fact that government opponents like Sanchez are traveling send the message that Cuba is softening, opening up, and becoming more tolerant?
“In some sense, the government is attempting to convert its harshest and most eloquent critics into its best ambassadors for the reality of the changes taking place on the island, especially as related to its migration reforms,” said Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College who is organizing events for Sanchez in New York City. “If they can travel, things must be changing no matter what they say while abroad,” he said.
But Henken said Sanchez will be able to gain new supporters around the world as she travels, aiding her cause of “internal, civic and non-violent struggle in Cuba,” he said.
“This may be the unintended consequence and Achilles' heel of the government’s very positive, if calculated, decision to allow her to travel,” added Henken, who is also the president of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy.
Sanchez’s trip will take her to at least a dozen countries. There’s been no word yet if her two-day stop in Washington, DC will include a visit to the White House.
Other prominent Castro critics have already left Cuba to begin trips of their own. One young dissident whose departure carried added symbolism is Eliecer Avila, who was featured in a viral 2008 YouTube video that showed him publicly challenging a top Cuban government official about why young people couldn’t travel.
Also now traveling is Rosa Maria Paya, the daughter of late Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, who has accused the Castro government of orchestrating the horrific car crash that killed her father last summer. She departed on a trip for Chile that had been held up because the government wouldn’t give her an “exit permit" under the old rules.
As of Jan.14, Cubans no longer need government-issued permits to come and go, only a valid passport and a visa from their destination country.
Restrictions still remain on some government and military officials, as well as star athletes and top scientists. But Cuban authorities have told many of the island’s most prominent opposition figures they can now travel. They include Berta Soler, leader of the “Ladies in White” group that holds weekly marches through Havana, and Guillermo Farinas, winner of the European Union’s 2010 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
At home in Cuba, those figures face frequent harassment and constant surveillance by authorities, but once abroad, they will be able to raise funds and network with other activists beyond reach of Cuban state security agents.
Yet even as some Castro opponents launch their trips abroad, others have been told they’re not going anywhere. Cuba’s new travel laws include exceedingly broad, vague language that allows the government to deny a passport to someone “for reasons of public interest,” and several dissidents say they’ve been turned down.
Some are unable to leave because they remain on probation, having been freed from prison in the past few years through the intervention of the Catholic Church. The new travel policy bars Cubans who have pending criminal charges or who are on parole from receiving passports.
That has left dissident economist and former political prisoner Oscar Espinosa Chepe, 72, in a bind. He’s been hospitalized several times in the past year as a result of failing health, and he’s now wondering if the government will let him go abroad to seek additional treatment. His parole isn’t up until 2023, he said, and he and his wife, fellow activist Miriam Leiva, have yet to apply for new passports.
Still, Espinosa Chepe said he didn’t think the government would be hurt by additional public criticism from other dissidents traveling abroad.
“The government has made an intelligent move. It’s trying to convey a message of openness,” he said. “It remains an authoritarian system, but I think it’s making positive steps with an eye on improving relations with the US.”
Asked whether his inability to leave Cuba has blunted his message over the years, Espinosa Chepe said he didn’t think so, noting that he frequently conducts interviews by phone, and has even participated in international academic conferences remotely. “I’ve said everything I’ve wanted to say,” he added.