Yoani Sanchez was first denied permission to travel abroad in 2008, when she received an award for her blog, Generación Y, where she frequently publishes bold commentary critical of Cuba's government.
Back in 2009, when she was still unable travel abroad, Ms. Sanchez sent a letter calling on the U.S. Congress to allow Americans to freely travel to Cuba. She wrote that abolishing our "long obsolete travel restrictions" would make the "anachronistic travel permit that we Cubans need to enter and leave our country... even more ridiculous and could bring more results in the democratization of Cuba than the indecisive performance of Raul Castro.'
Perhaps unexpectedly, it is the "indecisive" Raúl Castro who has fully liberalized travel. This January, his government eliminated the exit visa that had given it strict control over the comings and goings of its citizens. In fact, President Castro has put in motion a concert of reforms that includes licensing small businesses and private cooperatives, offering bank credits, opening up the real estate market, and restoring the right of return to Cubans who defected while travelling abroad, such as baseball players and doctors.
Today she is on an 80-day tour of South America, Europe and the United States, accepting many of the awards she had not been allowed to collect in the past.
Ms. Sanchez wrote recently in an op-ed published by Foreign Policy that these changes involving both economic freedom and the freedom of Cubans to travel "are gradually reducing the state's influence in the daily life of Cubans" because "those who cease to receive their salaries from a state institution and come to support their families through self-employment will undoubtedly gain more political autonomy." She even went so far as to say, "every step the authorities take in the direction of greater flexibility is like pointing a loaded gun at their own temples."
That's what Yoani says; and, yet, the Cuban government keeps taking them.
Just last month, Raúl Castro announced his retirement plans. His likely successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, a 52 year-old party leader, has taken the number two position on the Council of State. This imminent transition will check-off one of the requirements for lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba, as codified by the Helms-Burton Act. However, the Cold Warriors in Congress, less prepared to move forward than the Cubans, are turning a blind eye to all these developments.
In Ms. Sanchez's letter to legislators, she quoted Pope John Paul II's message from over two decades ago, "Let Cuba open itself to the world, and let the world open itself to Cuba." She predicted four years ago that if the U.S. would allow Americans to freely travel to Cuba then only the first part of the Pontiff's plea "would remain to be accomplished.'' But she had it backwards.
Although President Obama has since removed travel restrictions on Cuban Americans and somewhat relaxed regulations on other forms of travel, nearly all U.S. citizens must still ask for a specific license to travel to Cuba and must formally account for their activities on the island in detail.
As Ms. Sanchez is welcomed to Washington, D.C., I hope that Cuba's sternest critics don't forget: it is now easier for Yoani to visit our country, than it is for most Americans to visit hers.
Cross-posted from The Hill