RECIFE, Brazil (Reuters) - Cuba’s best-known dissident, blogger Yoani Sanchez, was greeted on Monday by small groups of protesters who called her a CIA agent upon arriving in Brazil, the first stop on a whirlwind tour that will take her to a dozen countries.
A smiling Sanchez brushed off the student demonstrators who sympathize with Cuba’s communist government, saying she wished Cubans had the same freedom to protest back home. Sanchez’s arrival in Brazil kicked off her first trip abroad since the Cuban government finally granted her a passport after more than 20 refusals in the past five years.
About eight students from a local university shouted “sell out” and “CIA agent” as Sanchez arrived in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife, according to a Reuters photographer who was at the airport.
“Viva la democracia! I want that democracy for my country too,” she responded.
Another group of protesters met her at the Salvador airport in Bahia state and police were called in to escort her when demonstrators interrupted a debate in the nearby municipality of Feira de Santana.
The Cuban government labels dissidents as mercenaries on the payroll of the United States, its decades-old ideological foe. Sanchez, a 37-year-old Havana resident, has incurred the wrath of Cuba’s government for constantly criticizing its communist system in her “Generation Y” blog, www.desdecuba.com/generaciony, and using Twitter to denounce repression.
Sanchez, who was starting an 80-day tour, was granted a passport two weeks ago under Cuba’s sweeping immigration reform that went into effect this year. She has won several international prizes for blogging about life in Cuba but has been unable to collect them until now.
“I am so happy. It has been five years of struggle,” Sanchez told local media.
“Unfortunately, in Cuba you are punished for thinking differently. Opinions against the government have terrible consequences, arbitrary arrests, surveillance,” she said in an interview with GloboNews television.
Sanchez’s visit touched a political nerve in Brazil, where the left-leaning government of President Dilma Rousseff is often criticized for not taking a more critical stance with Cuba’s one-party system and the repression of political dissent there.
According to local news magazine Veja, Cuban diplomats recently met with militants from Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party in Brasilia and asked them to organize protests against Sanchez during her stay in the South American country. One junior official in the Rousseff administration was present at the meeting, Veja said.
The report prompted some opposition legislators in Congress to accuse the Rousseff government of tacitly endorsing a Cuban-led smear campaign against Sanchez. One senator, Alvaro Dias, said he would demand that the government formally explain its role in what he called the “unacceptable monitoring” of Sanchez.
Rousseff’s office later said in a statement that the official had participated in a routine meeting about Cuban migration policy and preparations for Sanchez’s visit at the embassy and did not stay the whole time.
In the interview with GloboNews, Sanchez said recent reforms undertaken by President Raul Castro have been positive but minimal, such as the lifting of bans that prevented Cubans from buying new cars and other goods.
“There is a difference between the reforms we dream of and the reforms that are being carried out,” she said. “We dream of freedom of association, freedom of expression, but it does not look like we will get this too soon.”
Sanchez, considered Cuba’s pioneer in social networking, told Reuters earlier this week in Havana that, in addition to Brazil, she planned to travel to Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Spain, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, and visit the headquarters of Google, Twitter and Facebook in the United States.
Reporting by Helia Scheppa; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Todd Benson and Eric Beech