Cuban blogger returns home to unknown future

May 29, 2013, 11:06 AM EDT
In this March 19, 2013 file photo, Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Sanchez will return to Cuba from a prolonged global tour on Thursday, May 30, 2013. Communist authorities allowed Sanchez and several lesser-known opposition figures to travel as part of landmark migration reforms that took effect in January, eliminating exit visa requirements for all Cubans. Sanchez has said she wants to start an independent online newspaper upon her return. (AP
(AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

HAVANA (AP) — One of Cuba's most famous names is returning from a prolonged global tour on Thursday, but don't expect well-wishers, flowers or marching bands.

Most islanders won't even know about it.

When Yoani Sanchez touches down on a flight from Madrid on Thursday, she will step into an unknown future that could bring the dissident blogger more influence — or significantly more trouble — on this Communist-led island that has never looked kindly on dissent.

"It is too early to know what it will bring, what impact it will have," Sanchez's husband and fellow dissident, Reinaldo Escobar, told The Associated Press of his wife's highly-publicized travels. "What awaits her is a lot of work, a lot of responsibility and the possibility to realize her dreams."

In several tweets early Wednesday, Sanchez said she was returning to Cuba after a "never-ending trip" and that she was "happy, exhausted and full of ideas."

For those wondering why she would go back to an island that considers her a public enemy, Sanchez answered: "Because I am stubborn ... for me, life is nowhere but in Cuba."

Communist authorities allowed Sanchez and several lesser-known opposition figures to travel as part of landmark migration reforms that took effect in January, eliminating exit visa requirements for all Cubans.

She has taken advantage of the newfound freedom by visiting more than a dozen countries since her trip began Feb. 17, touring the White House, giving speeches before European and Latin American parliamentarians and exchanging ideas with luminaries as diverse as Polish politician Lech Walesa and Cuban-American musician Emilio Estefan.

Sanchez, who has won fame with searing social commentary in her Generation Y blog and in a steady stream of tweets, has said she wants to start an independent online newspaper upon her return.

That could put the 37-year-old on a collision course with the government of President Raul Castro. The island has never shied away from international opprobrium when it felt its security was at risk.

In 2003, Fidel Castro jailed 75 intellectuals, activists and social commentators in a notorious crackdown on dissent. But Raul, who took office in 2006, has freed them amid a slate of social and economic reforms.

Cuba considers all dissidents to be stooges paid by Washington and Miami to stir up trouble. It had no comment on Sanchez's imminent return.

Observers were divided on how Cuba would react, though they agreed the government would probably not come down too hard because Sanchez, like other dissidents, has a very small following on the island.

"International prominence offers her opportunities for future trips and protection against possible arrest," said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban analyst and lecturer at the University of Denver. "But none of that strengthens her capacity for internal organizing, which is still meager."

Dissidents complain the government controls all media, effectively shutting them out of public discourse, and say those who openly support them are harassed and ostracized. But it is also true that after more than half a century of one-party rule, many Cubans express cynicism about getting involved in political matters, and don't see the dissidents as a viable answer to their daily problems.

Of 20 Havana residents polled informally by The Associated Press this week, only seven said they had heard of Sanchez, and several of those weren't sure exactly who she was. Just three said they knew about her international trip.

"It's the first time I ever heard that name," said Irene Solis, 23.

"Who?" asked Rosa Suarez, 34.

Sanchez's obscurity back home is a far cry from the star treatment she got on the trip, her first off the island after years of being refused an exit visa.

Over three-plus months, Sanchez visited Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Holland and the United States, where she met with senior members of President Barack Obama's staff.

She spoke to international human rights leaders, gave speeches at U.S. universities and toured the New York offices of Google and Twitter. In Miami, she received hearty ovations from Cuban exiles and marveled at encountering a "Cuba outside Cuba."

She strolled the sun-kissed beaches of Rio de Janeiro, tweeted a photo of a Picasso masterpiece at New York's Museum of Modern Art and stood at the site of the long-fallen Berlin Wall.

She also met with editors at media outlets from NPR and the New York Times to Spain's El Pais, and told a regional journalism conference in Mexico that Cuban bloggers walk "a red line between liberty and jail" — comments that surely upset authorities.

Ted Henken, a Cuba expert who helped organize part of Sanchez's tour, said she had gained more than 100,000 Twitter followers since she left, bringing her total above half a million.

It will be a strange homecoming when Sanchez steps back into the simple apartment she shares with Escobar and their son.

But Sanchez's return also presents challenges for the government, since its treatment of her is sure to receive close scrutiny from journalists, foreign governments and human rights organizations.

"She's the tip of the iceberg of an emergent civil society," said Henken, though he also predicted Sanchez's fame would immunize her somewhat from arrest or detention.

Carlos Saladrigas, co-chairman of the U.S.-based Cuba Study Group, which advocates closer ties between America and Cuba, said Sanchez's trip marked a seminal moment for dissidency on the island — but that the government could also gain from showing a new tolerance for criticism.

"There is no return from this," he said. "They knew that dissidents would say overseas what they say in Cuba. They took that risk."

Added Henken: "It does give (the government) a quiver in their arsenal to say that this is change, and change is real: 'We have allowed this to happen, and we have taken the consequences.'"


Andrea Rodriguez and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana, and Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.


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