NEW YORK CITY -- Yoani Sánchez, one of the most influential figures in the Cuban dissident movement, arrived Thursday afternoon at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City to begin one of the most important stages of her international tour.
As she arrived from Mexico, Sánchez, 37, was welcomed with shows of support and solidarity from friends, intellectuals, and academicians.
“She is one of the strong voices of the opposition and represents hope for many Cubans who desire freedom for our people,” said Cuban exile Rolando Pulido, who has lived in New York City for three decades. “She’s not afraid to tell the truth,” he added.
Several people recognized her and had their pictures taken with her in a relaxed and cordial atmosphere. The situation contrasted markedly with her arrival in Brazil and Mexico, where supporters of the Cuban government protested against her.
“It is an intense tour, but I’m very happy to be here,” Sánchez said. “I’ve boarded 20 planes in the last several weeks.”
True to her style, Sánchez said she was enthused about meeting Americans and exchanging opinions and ideas about the situation on the island. In that context, she said she has not lost hope that Cuba will undertake changes that will lead to a democratic transition.
“I notice a kind of bubbling in civilian society, an increase in criticism, an expansion of the spaces for debate among citizens,” she said.
Calls for change have been coupled with denunciations of a wave of temporary detentions.
Thursday night, Sánchez appeared at Columbia University’s School of Journalism to answer questions.
Sánchez described the problems Cubans have when trying to access the Internet and government surveillance of independent journalists. She also spoke about the changes made by Cuban leader Raúl Castro.
“I would love to pose 50 questions to Raúl Castro. And I anticipate right now that they won’t be answered,” she said.
Sánchez stressed that Cuban government restrictions of the Internet have “been even more aggressive” than she expected.
Cuba is one of 60 countries that censor communications and limit or harass Internet users constantly. The average access to the Internet by Cubans is the lowest in the Western hemisphere. Individual connections are restricted to official entities and educational and cultural institutions, under strict supervision.
Access to foreigners and Cuban citizens must be officially authorized after an exhaustive background check. “But as a journalist I am not frightened by the problems,” said Sánchez. “What’s most important is that the Cuban government and [the Communist Party daily] Granma are reading us. That is why they have created an alternative blogosphere to reply to us. They’re acknowledging us and that’s a first step toward acceptance.”
Earlier, she had said that although the Cuban authorities have hardened their already tough policies to silence dissident voices, the government is “losing” spaces that historically were always under its control.
“We’re a people who specialize in finding out what’s censored,” Sánchez said. “In my personal case, that’s how it was with the topic of travel. It was a journalistic and civilian crusade. I reported on the suffering and documented it.”
The blogger and founder of Generation Y said that the authorities’ ignorance of the people’s most pressing needs could mark the start of a democratic change.
“That is why the government is afraid of the Internet. It is a system that could not withstand the avalanche of information, internal and external,” she said. “The technology has managed to break some of the barriers and the monopoly of the Cuban government.”
Sánchez also referred to Cuba’s travel and economic reforms.
“I think that the so-called Raulista reforms have been made due to pressure from those outside and inside Cuba,” she said. “And, no doubt, some lights have been lit, such as the immigration policy to which we Cubans were condemned.”
At another point in her appearance, which was celebrated with applause and expressions of support, Sánchez urged the exile community to continue to help Cubans on the island with technology and other items.
“The exile [community] is helping a lot, but can help more,” she said. “Send flash drives, mobile phones, anything you can.”
Toward the end of the session, a couple of people in the audience stood up to challenge her. One of them said that Sánchez does not represent “free journalism.”
Shortly before flying to the United States, Sánchez pointed out that some countries are looking away because they think that “Cuba is being reformed.”
This is Sánchez’s first visit to the U.S. and the fifth stop in a tour of countries in Latin America and Europe.
Next week, Sánchez will go to Washington to appear on Capitol Hill and speak at Georgetown University.
Before arriving in the United States, Sánchez sent a Twitter message expressing her appreciation of Mexico, the country she visited before her U.S. tour.
“#Mexico ‘stole’ my heart; I confess that I was tempted not to board this plane and to stay longer there ;-)" she wrote @yoanisanchez.