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Pro-Cuba protesters halt dissident’s Brazil event

February 19, 2013

FEIRA DE SANTANA, Brazil (AP) — Boisterous protesters backing the Cuban government blocked the Monday screening of a documentary featuring Cuba’s best-known dissident, the blogger Yoani Sanchez, who was in attendance after being allowed to leave the communist island for the first time in nearly a decade.

Small groups of protesters met Sanchez when she arrived earlier Monday at two airports in Brazil’s northeast. They called her a “mercenary” who was being financed by the CIA and tossed photocopied U.S. dollar bills her way. One protester got close enough to pull her hair.

Sanchez was also met by supporters and throughout the day in Tweets and a blog posting expressed her joy at being in Brazil, the first stop on her 80-day tour of about a dozen nations.

Yet at the evening screening in a museum, about four dozen protesters surrounded her the moment she walked through the door, shouting “Cuba yes! Yankees no!” and forcing security guards to evacuate her to a nearby room.

“I was expecting it, even before leaving Cuba I knew this could happen,” Sanchez told The Associated Press minutes later inside the room where she was taken for protection. “It’s sad because I’ve been waiting one year for this, I really wanted to see (the) film.”

About an hour after being taken out of the screening room, Sanchez, accompanied by Brazilian Sen. Eduardo Suplicy, went to speak to the crowd, both protesters and supporters.

“After remaining silent for a long time, after living in a society where not speaking up was the option of the majority of my countrymen, after so much silence, one fine day I couldn’t take it anymore and I started a blog,” she told those gathered, some who cheered, some who booed.

Sanchez stayed with the crowd for about 45 minutes, then left the venue.

Sanchez’s ability to leave her homeland was seen as a test of a new Cuba law, announced in October, which eliminated the exit permit that had been required of islanders for five decades.

Cuban authorities can still deny travel in cases of defense and “national security,” among other reasons, and some dissidents continue to face restrictions. Still, the exit permit’s demise is seen as one of the most significant reforms of President Raul Castro’s ongoing plan to refashion some elements of the economy, government and society.

“The immigration reform doesn’t have the depth we would have expected but there has been a change,” Sanchez told the AP. “Where we haven’t seen changes is on the political side, we need to see freedom of association, freedom of speech. Without these the reforms are incomplete.”

She added that the reforms with the biggest impact on Cubans’ lives have been “on the economic side. Giving unused land to people for production is important, the freedom to buy and sell cars which seems like a small thing is a tremendous change.”

Sanchez’s Brazil trip was paid through online donations — the Brazilian director of a documentary she appeared in launched the fundraising campaign. The city government of Feira de Santana, where the film was supposed to be screened Monday, paid for her accommodation.

Ted Henken, a professor of Latin American studies at New York’s Baruch College who studies social media and civil society in Cuba, is closely involved in arranging Sanchez’s U.S. meetings and appearances. He said in an emailed response that the U.S. government “has not contributed one penny to her trip.” He said the bulk of the money for the U.S. leg of Sanchez’s trip is being funded by universities she’ll visit.

“She is not being paid for her appearance by any of these institutions partly because — irony — the embargo prevents it. A small per diem is all that’s allowed apart from covering travel and lodging costs,” Henken said.

The protests surrounding Sanchez were explored in a weekend article from Veja, Brazil’s most influential magazine. It alleged that Cuban diplomats were working with Brazilian leftists and even a member of President Dilma Rousseff’s government to organize protests against Sanchez during her stops in the country, where she is expected to stay for a week.

Cuba’s Embassy in Brasilia had no comment on Sanchez’s trip. The office of Brazil’s president didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Sanchez’s tour includes several stops in the United States, with appearances at universities in New York and other academic programs, visits to Google and Twitter offices and time with family in Florida.

She’ll also travel to the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Peru, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, with potential trips to Argentina and Chile in the works.

On Twitter, Sanchez wrote of her trip that “the minutes are as intense as hours. Everything is beautiful!”

On her blog, Sanchez wrote of fellow Cubans offering support in Havana as she boarded her flight and of Venezuelans on the plane who befriended her but asked that she not put their photos online, to avoid trouble with their own socialist government.

After a layover in Panama, Sanchez began the longest leg of her initial journey. Once in the air heading toward Brazil, she wrote, she felt a “sense of physical and mental decompression. As if I had been submerged for too long without being able to breathe, and now managed to take a gulp of air.”

“So far everything is going well,” she ended the blog entry. “Brazil has given me the gift of diversity and affection, the possibility to appreciate and tell of so many astonishments.”


Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Havana and Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.

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