Yoani Sanchez: Castro Government Offers 'Mafia-Like” Alliances That Go Beyond Ideology

The asylum granted by Nicaragua to former Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes is proof, she says.


Six months after U.S. President Barack Obama visited Cuba, nothing has changed on the island. That's the word from Yoani Sanchez, the dissident blogger who has been denouncing human rights violations in that country since 2007. Day to day life in Cuba continues to be “complicated,” she says, and has grown worse since Washington and Havana announced they would restore diplomatic relations.

Cuba is also missing a new leadership that can generate hopes for future changes at the helm, she says, because the regime is bent on silencing any dissident voices. She adds that Cuba's relations with countries like Venezuela and El Salvador are based on personal rather than political or economic interests. “The teat of the Venezuelan cow is drying up for the Castro regime,” she warns. And, in the case of El Salvador, she explains that the Castro regime can offer it nothing but support in international forums and “mafia-like” alliances that go beyond ideology. Proof of that, she says is that former Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes was granted asylum in Nicaragua.

Yoani Sanchez is now in Guatemala, taking part in several conferences about Cuba at the Francisco Marroquin University. Here is the text of our interview.

With Vice-President Joe Biden. Yoani Sanchez participated in the meeting hosted by President Barack Obama with journalists in Havana.

With Vice-President Joe Biden. Yoani Sanchez participated in the meeting hosted by President Barack Obama with journalists in Havana.

What's happened in Cuba since President Obama's visit?

“I would love to have good news. On one hand, it's clear that Barack Obama's visit in 2016 was a historic event that marked a before and an after in diplomatic and political relations. I think that's been important to tearing down an official line, a Cuban government propaganda line that was tightly focused on the rivalry, on the confrontation with the enemy to the north. When we saw Obama land in Havana, I think something shattered forever in all that talk about the enemy to the north. But daily life, the day to day conditions, have not seen great improvements or great relief since that time. The Cuban government has not taken the steps that are conducive to a better life for the Cuban people.

The social and economic conditions remain the same in Cuba?

Day to day life is very complex. There are major shortages. There is an economic collapse. The government itself has admitted that there's a shortage of liquidity, that 80 per cent of the food is imported. I think the worst thing is the hopelessness. Two years after the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States was announced, Cubans are worse off now than how they imagined their future at that point.

Is the Cuban dissidence united, or fragmented like the Venezuelan opposition at one point?

If we compare it with the Venezuelan opposition, they have reached a higher degree of maturity in Venezuela. The positive side of the Cuban case is that it has generated a broad range of activities in the civil framework, a framework that the regime had destroyed and cut off with decades of control. So, little by little, we're starting to see the appearance of many groups that are not the classic opposition party that we know, but rather groups of activists for LGBT rights, against racial discrimination, for independent journalists and the protection of women. Our hopes are in the great growth of that kaleidoscope, that variety in civil society.

But can that civil framework really create a broader opening on the island?

My hope is that new actors will appear in the Cuban opposition. And I am saying, for example, that if the Cuban government relaxes the Law of Associations to make it easier for people to legally and openly register a party, a non-governmental organization – and it also stops punishing people because they say what they think, it decriminalizes dissent – we could see the rise of political actors who we can't even imagine, and who could be very valuable. I am thinking of professors, academics, people who have a natural leadership and who are now silent because they are afraid that if they open their mouths and speak about their views on government they will be put in jail, they will be publicly demonized. When those people have guarantees, I think that's when we will find the future leaders of Cuba.

Is Fidel Castro still remembered as the undisputed leader of Cuba, or are the new generations starting to have a different view of politics?

Fidel Castro has been growing dimmer in Cuba's daily life. Castro has been convalescing since July 31 of 2006, and 10 years later his public appearances have been sporadic and brief, and his health seems very deteriorated. We hear about him mostly when a foreign visitor arrives and they have a photo taken at his house, and from his increasingly chaotic and delirious columns known as reflections. I have the impression that if his end had been more heroic, many people would have held on to a different image of him. But history can be ironic and sarcastic at times, and it is giving him an ending that he never expected, forgotten, fading away, growing dimmer.

How are the relations between Cuba and Venezuela?

The latest news on that issue, for example, the supply of petroleum to Cuba, signal that Revolution Plaza is very aware that the subsidies Venezuela sends to Cuba are in a precarious and fragile situation. Cuba already has approached Russia, for example, to start receiving some oil. That's an indicator that they are looking for alternatives, that the teat of the Venezuelan cow is drying up for the Castro regime. That's sad, because the Cuban government is responsible for many of the economic disasters that Venezuelans are suffering, just as it was responsible for many of the economic disasters of the soviet Union because it has an insatiable appetite for resources. Incapable of producing for itself, it has decimated a national economy that lives only because of subsidies.

Why is Venezuela falling apart, yet Cuba is still there despite the circumstances?

Well, I don't know that Cuba is still there. With the massive escape of thousands and thousands of Cubans every year, you can say that Cuba is still there and that the octogenarians are still sitting on the presidential throne, but that doesn't mean a country is still there. A country has to function. A country has to give hope to its citizens. A country can't be a place to visit for the many who live abroad. Cuba remains in the precarious equilibrium where it has been for decades, basically because in contrast with Hugo Chavez the government very quickly broke up all of the mechanisms of social autonomy that could have pushed for a change. In the case of Venezuela, the framework of a private economy was maintained – very damaged, we all know the stories of Venezuelan business persons – and some traces of a free press were maintained despite the pressures. And the opposition is still there, despite everything we know about when Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech and demonizes them.

Do you believe that Latin Americans are unhappy with socialism and turning to the right?

I am a bit of an enemy of any political alignments, right or left … I think that many times behind those skirts hides a kind of caudillo who has no political coloration. Maybe the left has the words, the slogans, the clothes. But in its marrow – let me take advantage that I am now in the country where Miguel Angel Asturias wrote The President – and at its core is the old Latin American caudillismo, revisited and redrawn for the 21st Century, but still the same. In the case of Cuba, I believe this historic lesson that we have been learning for nearly 60 years will leave its mark on people, in part a negative mark because of the mistrust it has created among all Cubans, the loss of the sense of belonging to the nation, and other evils that the system brought us for decades and generations. But it will also leave us a big lesson that could show up in any elections. The most important thing is that people know that they cannot just hand over the country to a man and tell him, “Do whatever you want with the nation.”


That's very hard. It's complicated. In the first place, because a referendum that would question the system – whether to chose socialism and Marxist Leninism as the principal doctrine that supports the system – would clash with a constitutional amendment promoted by Fidel Castro himself in early 2000. People called it the mummification of the Constitution because it added a clause that described socialism as irreversible. That was like a circuit breaker, in case some day someone managed to call a referendum. Under the current laws, that's complicated.


The Cuban government is not Cuba. The government has been very skillful when it comes to making diplomatic and political alliances, especially to exert influence later in international fora. Many of them, like ALBA, are based on the principle of protecting its own back whenever it is challenged on the issue of human rights. When addressing other nations, they talk about the right of countries to decide their own future, but they remain silent when it comes to the right of citizens to decide. Many of these alliances that confuse people in El Salvador are based on this type of diplomatic leveraging. I protect you and you protect me, and we scream together at the United Nations whenever there's an issue that bothers a member of our group. That's very significant now that Funes has been granted asylum in Nicaragua, because it also points to alliances that go even beyond respect for domestic legality.

They are a bit like Mafia structures that go beyond ideology. I believe Havana, with its alliance with El Salvador under Funes, was trying precisely to control a sector of Latin America, have allies in international fora, and above all today poke a finger in the eye.


Mafia-like in the sense that there's no ethical questioning of the activities of members of this sort of gang, because political alliances are possible but they can't be blind to mismanagement, authoritarian policies or constitutional violations by a president who is a member of the alliance. What we have seen is a string of devious deals to harass others, and sadly it is we Latin Americans who are paying for this.


I truly want the Colombian people to find peace as soon as possible. The Cuban participation, what strikes me every time I see Raul Castro, wearing a guayabera and playing the role of mediator between (Colombian President Juan Manuel) Santos and (FARC negotiator) Timochenko, I ask myself, Mr. Castro, you are ready to reconcile, to unite in dialogue an armed guerrilla and a democratically elected president, smooth things over and reach a peace agreement. And why aren't you ready, Mr. Raul Castro, to sit town and talk with your domestic opposition, which is peaceful, which has never taken up arms, which lives in the country, not in the mountains. Don't you think that's a little contradictory, Mr. Raul Castro? What a double standard!. How contradictory, how cynical, to promote conciliation outside the home and yet muzzle, repress and arrest those at home who think differently.


Journalism is the world's most dangerous profession. Nobody likes us. We are not well liked by politicians, or those who have something to hide. We journalists are often the focus of attention by the powerful, in the sense of the authoritarian exercise of power. That's especially true in Latin America. We have the example of Mexico and the case of Honduras, which are dramatic. I understand that in El Salvador there are a lot of pressures … The case of Cuba is different, because the government long ago broke up the free press and turned journalists into professional propagandists for the system, which led to a process of self-censorship, of publishing only what the government wants and to lots of hugs and happy anniversaries and other praise for Fidel Castro.


The end of the last century saw a very intense development of independent journalism that is now in a good moment. We saw the birth of the first media linked to complaints about human rights abuses, and the government reacted violently with the Black Spring of 2003, when most of the 75 people jailed were independent journalists. But thanks to technology, there's been an explosion of independent media. We now have media that focus on social issues, on complaints, but also on entertainment, art, music … I think we are living in a good moment, even though we remain illegal.