Published February 17, 2013
HAVANA – Cuba's most famous dissident blogger, Yoani Sanchez, set off on a three month, dozen-nation world tour Sunday.
Sanchez was freed to travel after a new law eliminated the exit permit that had been required of islanders for five decades and was denied to her around 20 times in recent years.
Pulling a blue rolling suitcase emblazoned with the logo of her "Generation Y" blog at Havana's international airport, Sanchez showed reporters her brand new passport with a fresh U.S. double-entry visa, valid for six months. She paid the $25 airport tax, disappeared beyond the passport control checkpoint and said via Twitter that the only thing left was to get on the plane.
"My name has not been called over the loudspeakers, they have not taken me to a room to strip me or give me a warning," she tweeted from the waiting lounge. "Everything is going well."
Sanchez is one of Cuba's most prominent dissidents, though her blog is not widely followed on the island. Whether authorities would allow her to go abroad was seen as a key test of the travel law, one of the most significant reforms of President Raul Castro's ongoing plan to refashion some elements of the economy, government and society.
Ted Henken, a professor of Latin American studies at New York's Baruch College who studies social media and civil society in Cuba, said letting prominent dissidents travel is a "calculated risk" in which the government could figure good public relations outweigh the downside of people such as Sanchez using their bully pulpit to bash the Communist system abroad. Henken has been closely involved in arranging Sanchez's U.S. meetings and appearances.
"The fact that Yoani is now flying to ... Brazil is going to be something that is written about as a sign of something changing," Henken said. "And that's positive."
The law, which took effect Jan. 14, ended the much-loathed exit visa requirement, which was routinely withheld from dissidents, doctors, military officers and other sensitive individuals. The reform also simplified other bureaucratic procedures that had made overseas travel complicated for Cubans.
However it contained a clause allowing the state to deny passports in certain cases including for reasons of national security, and it had not been clear whether dissidents would be allowed to travel.
So far the results have been mixed.
Sanchez was granted a passport, as was the leader of the Ladies in White protest group. Fellow dissident Eliecer Avila went to Sweden, and Rosa Maria Paya, daughter of the late dissident Oswaldo Paya, flew to Spain on Saturday. Hunger striker Guillermo Farinas has been told he can travel.
But passports were denied to two other government opponents, one who had a criminal sentence against him still pending and another who said she was turned down for belonging to "counterrevolutionary groups."
Cuban authorities consider the small community of outspoken dissidents to be traitorous "mercenaries" who accept foreign money to try to undermine the government.
But some of them are now free to travel overseas to collect human rights prizes, take part in conferences and no doubt denounce President Raul Castro's government in public forums.
"She's going to take advantage of any space that the government cedes to occupy that space and to push for greater civil liberties and political freedoms," as well as continue lobbying for travel by those dissidents who were denied passports, Henken said. "She's clearly going to be beating that drum for the next three months."
At the airport Sunday, a smiling Sanchez told reporters she was optimistic while leaving for her trip and saying goodbye to her husband and 14-year-old son.
"I bring with me a message of hope," she said. "I am not naive. I realize there are problems, but I believe in the future and I have great hope for the people."
"This will be like 'Around the World in 80 Days,'" Sanchez added. "I don't want to be gone longer because I don't like to be apart from my family. ... Although I still haven't left, I'm already looking forward to my return."
Sanchez was heading first to Brazil for the screening of a documentary film in which she appears, with a layover in Panama City where she said she was excited to try out the airport's free Wi-Fi.
The tour includes several stops in the United States, with appearances at universities in New York and other academic programs, visits to Google and Twitter offices and time with family in Florida.
She'll also travel to the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Peru, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, with potential trips to Argentina and Chile in the works.
"I don't have any fears about returning. Some friends worry that they won't let me return, but I don't think so because that would be a grave violation of the law," Sanchez said.
Reporting by the Associated Press.