Yoani Sánchez’ visit to Miami left a dramatic and permanent imprint on our exile community. Notwithstanding her positions on the embargo, travel and reconciliation, she brought us together in ways that no one had been able to do before. Expressions of dissent were almost imperceptible, even in the most hard-core corners of exile radicalism.
Her visit presented a big contrast to Oswaldo Payá’s visit nearly 10 years ago. Like Yoani, Payá had spoken against the embargo and preached a message of hope and reconciliation. He talked about one Cuban nation, not about “us and them”. He called us to dialogue as the only way to bridge the divide. While his message was welcomed by most, the verbal attacks on Payá were abundant and pernicious. In our best example of missing the forest for the trees, debate and attacks continued for months, helping to destroy what may have then been our best chance of having a Cuban version of a Lech Walesa or a Vaclav Havel. In hindsight this was perhaps one of our biggest missed opportunities.
A decade later, Yoani found a changed and different Miami. Without belittling her charm and abundant charisma, Miami has changed enormously in those intervening years, offering her a much more tolerant, accepting and respectful environment than would have been possible then. Though it is impossible to say how many minds she may have changed, she has definitely reset the narrative and prioritized the debate.
Her legacy will be lasting and impactful around four major themes:
• She called for unity of purpose, not just rallying around aspirational goals. The exile community has never lacked unity in its overriding objective to seek a free, democratic, and prosperous Cuba, but there has been way too much debilitating internecine infighting on tactics and strategies. In the end, it is not the lofty goal that matters most, but the effectiveness of the tactics and the strategies to achieve it.
• The nearly 55 year-old-embargo, and its concomitant policies of isolation and impoverishment, are either the right answer to bring the necessary changes to Cuba, or a disastrous mistake that has only served to delay change, helped the Cuban regime survive its worst crises and self-made failures, and deterred the development of a civil society in Cuba. There can be no logical in-between. As Yoani beckoned, an honest, respectful debate and reassessment of this policy is imperative and timely.
• Yoani has repeatedly stressed the importance of focusing on the Cuban people. Having a keen appreciation for the travails of ordinary Cubans, she understands that only the Cuban people on the island can be the ultimate agent of change. For way too long, we have obsessed with hurting the government while inflicting collateral damage on the people. She has called on us to focus on the people, even if it brings a collateral benefit to the government. The bottom line is all about the Cuban people.
She has presented an irrefutable case for openness. She argued convincingly that helping to strengthen Cuba’s civil society is critical, and has reminded us that isolation is counterproductive. Her own life story, as a micro-entrepreneur working for tourists visiting the island, is a testament to the benefits of openness and engagement. She has become an international symbol of the power of the Internet and social media, and has admonished us to facilitate the development of these liberating technologies. Yet, the embargo on Cuba contains the harshest sanctions on telephone and communication technologies applied to any foe of the United States. As can be clearly seen from the spectacular growth of cell phones in Cuba, we seem to miss the point that the Internet will only grow and develop when there is a business model to support it.
• Last, she reminded us that Cuba is changing, not just because of the government-enacted reforms, but because the Cuban people are changing. Change is a process that cannot be micromanaged. Wholesale change is simply the accumulation of retail changes. Every opportunity for change must be welcomed. Her many anecdotes invited us to never miss an opportunity to build a bridge or open a door, and showed the futility of waiting for all windows and doors to open at once. She knows the importance of seizing the cracks.
Essentially, she has called on all Cubans to question the old and welcome the new, to seize the moment and the opportunity at hand, to constantly ask why, but also why not. That will be the enduring legacy of her trip. We are left to act on her message, so that we don’t miss another opportunity this time around.
Carlos Saladrigas is a Miami businessman and co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group.