NEW YORK — Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, on her first visit to the U.S., said the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will help fuel economic changes beyond the government’s control on the Caribbean island.
“In recent months the pace of change has been accelerating, and not because of the government’s efforts,” Sanchez said in an interview Friday at Bloomberg News headquarters in New York. “The death of Hugo Chavez and the possible reduction of Venezuelan subsidies is one variable accelerating this change. We’re in uncharted territory.”
Venezuela sends Cuba about 100,000 barrels of oil a day, helping President Raul Castro’s government undermine a U.S. trade embargo in exchange for Cuban doctors sent to community clinics. Another 100,000 barrels per day are sent to 18 Caribbean and Central American countries in the Petrocaribe program. That aid could be reduced as interim President Nicolas Maduro confronts a widening deficit, Heather Berkman, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, said in a March 12 report.
Sanchez, who will meet lawmakers in Washington next week, said Castro’s economic changes to date have been too small because the government is concerned greater economic freedoms will weaken its political power. She dismissed Castro’s Feb. 24 statement that he’ll leave power after his current term ends in 2018, saying that he’s already had 54 years in power as president and second-in-command under his 86-year-old brother, former President Fidel Castro.
Sanchez, who was last detained by Cuban police in October after attending the trial of a man charged in the driving death of another dissident, has drawn tens of thousands of followers worldwide through her blog and use of social media. President Barack Obama responded to Sanchez’s questions in an online interview in 2009 and she was named among Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2008.
“Yoani has demonstrated profound courage in the face of adversity,” U.S. Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., said Friday.
Sanchez’s New York visit, part of her first foreign travel after more than five years of seeking permission to leave the island, follows Castro’s decision in January to ease some travel restrictions. Not all dissidents have been allowed to leave, and Sanchez said she fears what may happen to her or her family when she returns to Cuba.
Messages and e-mails to press officials at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington and the Foreign Ministry in Havana weren’t answered.
Venezuela is likely to prioritize oil shipments to Cuba and any reduction would come in the “longer term,” Berkman wrote in her March 12 report. Countries including the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Jamaica are at higher risk of seeing aid reduced, she said.
Maduro, who replaced Chavez following his March 5 death from cancer, said this month that the government will “strengthen” Petrocaribe, without giving more details.
Since Fidel began handing over presidential powers in 2006, his 81-year-old brother has initiated measures to open Cuba’s $61 billion economy, including loosening of property laws, the creation of more cooperatives and allowing private businesses such as taxis and mobile-phone companies. A vow to dismiss 500,000 state workers hasn’t been carried out.
“These reforms are not sufficient, but they are significant,” said Ted Henken, a sociology professor at Baruch College who helped arrange Sanchez’s New York trip. “The government is trying to control the demands bubbling up from the people.”
‘Century of Dictators’
Sanchez, whose “Generation Y” blog has served as an outlet for her frustrations with daily life under the Castro regime, said growing economic independence will eventually erode the government’s grip on society.
By offering economic opportunity, “an ice cream-making machine in Cuba today could be as subversive as a dissident’s statement,” Sanchez said.
A transition to a more market-based economy should focus on aiding small entrepreneurs, not established companies, Sanchez said. A failure to do so could result in military leaders becoming businessmen with monopoly power in different economic sectors, she said.
Latin Americans will also closely watch the U.S. role in any transition, Sanchez said. If a transition isn’t managed well, “we could have another century of dictators and strongmen.”
First Vice President Manuel Diaz-Canel, who would succeed Raul Castro if he can’t finish his term, was “named not for his abilities, but for his loyalty,” Sanchez said.
‘Surrounded by Wolves’
“We really don’t know who he is,” she said. “He’s managed to survive surrounded by wolves because he hasn’t stood out. He’s probably the unhappiest man in Cuba now.”
Prior to arriving in New York Friday, Sanchez’s travels had taken her to Mexico and Brazil, where she faced protests from pro-Castro groups who say she is supported by the Central Intelligence Agency.
If she isn’t allowed to return to Cuba, Sanchez said she’ll have to sneak back into the country where refugees often leave in hopes of making it to the U.S.
“I’ll become the first person to board a raft to get back into Cuba,” she said.
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