Dissident Blogger Says Cubans Wanted More From Rousseff Trip

Dilma Rousseff
Cuban President Raul Castro and his Brazilian counterpart Dilma Rousseff review the honour guard during the welcoming ceremony at Revolution Palace, on Jan. 31, 2012 in Havana. Photographer: Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images

Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez said her compatriots had hoped for more from Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who avoided criticizing the human rights situation on the communist island during a state visit to Havana this week.

Sanchez said she had looked for at least a “small wink” from Rousseff, who was imprisoned and tortured for fighting Brazil’s dictatorship in the 1960s, after a jailed dissident, Wilman Villar, died last month following a hunger strike and President Raul Castro vowed to maintain single-party rule.

“It was pure chance that she came at this time, but people had hoped for more,” Sanchez said in an interview last night in Havana. “I would’ve hoped for a small wink, a phrase with a double meaning that we could interpret, and that the government could interpret too.”

Rousseff, who concludes a three-day visit to Havana today, said that it was an internal matter for Cuba to decide whether to allow Sanchez to leave the island after Brazil last week granted the 36-year-old blogger an entry visa to attend next month a screening of a documentary she appears in. Sanchez, a critic of the Castro government on the Generation Y blog, has been denied permission to leave Cuba for four years.

“Brazil gave the visa to the blogger,” Rousseff, 64, told reporters yesterday in Havana before meeting with Castro and his brother Fidel. “The rest is not a matter for the Brazilian government.”

Throwing Stones

Rousseff, who has vowed to make human rights a cornerstone of her foreign policy, failed to comment on the Cuban government’s record, pointing instead to the U.S. detention camp for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay on the island’s southeastern tip.

“He who throws the first stone has a roof made of glass,” said Rousseff, whose Workers’ Party has long supported Cuba. “We in Brazil have our problems too.”

While critical of the Brazilian president’s stance, Sanchez said Rousseff’s silence is preferable to her predecessor and mentor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s siding with the Castro government after the death of another jailed hunger striker in 2010, she added.

“I wake up every day and say to myself, today I am going to behave like a free person,” Sanchez said. “Dilma once said the same. She paid a high personal and physical cost, but in the end life proved her right and Brazil became a democracy.”

‘Zero Comparison’

Julia Sweig, an author of publications on Cuba and Brazil, said criticism of the Castro government is more widespread today than it’s ever been since the 1959 revolution and taking many forms that escape the attention of foreign governments and media. As Cuba’s second-biggest investor, helping Castro ease state control of the economy, Brazil is well-positioned to discuss the island’s rights record behind the scenes in a productive manner, she added.

“Yoani’s situation bears zero comparison to what Dilma went through,” said Sweig, director of the Latin America program at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “Unlike Dilma, she hasn’t been and won’t be jailed or tortured and I seriously doubt she’s going to be president of Cuba.”

Cuba’s government relies on beatings, short-term detentions, forced exile and travel restrictions to repress virtually all forms of political dissent, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report this month. Cuba denies it’s holding any political prisoners and considers dissident activity to be counterrevolutionary supported by anti-Castro “mercenaries” in the U.S.

Castro Visit

While blocked from traveling abroad, Sanchez has emerged as a leader among a group of young dissidents who describe the daily travails of 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.”

Sanchez said the visibility she has gained through blogging gives her some protection from the Cuban government.

“The day I stop blogging, they’ll put me on trial,” she said.

Rousseff, who travels to Haiti today, discussed the possibility of hosting Raul Castro at a future date, according to a Brazilian official with the president who isn’t authorized to comment on the two leaders’ talks publicly.

Editors: Joshua Goodman, Harry Maurer

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