(Corrects story from Jan. 26 to change description of photograph in Sanchez blog in fifth paragraph.)
Brazil issued a tourist visa to a dissident Cuban blogger a few days before President Dilma Rousseff is scheduled to travel to the communist island in a visit being dominated by human rights concerns.
Yoani Sanchez, an outspoken critic of Raul Castro’s government, requested permission to travel to Brazil so she could attend the screening next month of a documentary in which she appears, the foreign ministry said in a statement. The visa was issued by Brazil’s embassy in Havana.
The 36-year-old philologist, who has repeatedly been blocked from leaving Cuba, celebrated the decision. “Now comes the most difficult part: the permission to leave,” she said in a message posted on her Twitter account yesterday.
Rousseff has been under pressure to meet with Sanchez and other activists during her Jan. 31-Feb. 1 visit after a jailed dissident, Wilman Villar, died last week during a 50-day hunger strike. Sanchez appealed this week directly to Rousseff, invoking the president’s experience surviving prison and torture at the hands of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship.
“I saw a photo of young Dilma sitting in the dock, being judged by men with their faces covered,” Sanchez wrote Jan. 24 on Twitter. “I feel that way right now.”
Rousseff has vowed to make human rights a priority of her foreign policy, and in condemning abuses in Iran has taken distance from the policies of her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Lula refused to meet with dissidents during his last presidential visit to Cuba in 2010, which coincided with the death of another jailed hunger striker. At the time, the former union leader said he had never received a formal request for any such meeting. He later drew rebuke in Brazil for comparing the Cuban dissidents to “criminals” in Sao Paulo jails.
“Dilma can’t criticize Castro’s regime because of the historical ties between Castro, Lula and the left-wing movement in Brazil,” said Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, a Latin America analyst at the Eurasia Group, a Washington-based political risk company. “But at the same time, she can’t ignore the human rights issue in Cuba.”
Any attempts by Rousseff, or any other leader, to publicly criticize Cuba’s rights record may be counterproductive, said Fernando Morais, the author of a best-selling 1976 Brazilian book sympathetic to the Castro government called “The Island.”
“I think that discrete intervention can help human rights more than loud gestures,” said Morais, whose latest book is about Cubans who moved to the U.S. in the 1990s to spy on anti- Castro groups.
As part of the preparations for Rousseff’s visit next week, her government notified Cuban authorities that it would grant Sanchez the visa, said a Brazilian official with direct knowledge of the talks. Brazil routinely grants tourist visas to Cuban citizens who request it, said the official, who is not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Rousseff was jailed in 1970 for three years for her involvement in an armed guerrilla movement inspired by Raul and brother Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. While Sanchez’s visa request has dominated Brazilian newspaper headlines in recent days, Rousseff’s trip -- her first as president -- is supposed to be focused on trade.
Brazilian companies have stepped up their presence in Cuba in recent years, as the Castro government has taken steps to attract foreign investment to its cash-strapped, state-dominated economy. Brazilian construction company Odebrecht SA is part of a consortium expanding the port of Mariel, which Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota visited last week. The project is being co-financed by Brazil’s state development bank BNDES.
Since 2006, bilateral trade rose 30 percent to $488 million in 2010, according to the Brazilian foreign ministry. In the first 11 months of 2011, trade reached $570 million.
While blocked from traveling abroad in the past, Sanchez openly criticizes Castro’s government on a blog, Generation Y, and has emerged as a leader among a group of young dissidents who describe the daily travails life in Cuba through difficult- to-access social media. Many of her chronicles are published by newspapers throughout Latin America. She has also written a book, “Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today.”
Senator Eduardo Suplicy, a member of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, said it would be “positive” for the president to meet with Sanchez during her visit as well as discuss with the Castro brothers the possibility of the blogger traveling to Brazil.
“She never committed any crime, she is a normal Cuban citizen,” Suplicy, who delivered a letter by Sanchez to Rousseff last week, said in a phone interview from Sao Paulo. “If the Cuban government authorizes Sanchez to visit Brazil it would be a significant gesture, a positive sign for President Barack Obama to end the U.S. embargo.”