Reinaldo Escobar met Yoani Sánchez when she was just 18. She came to his house and wanted to borrow a book. Escobar said he quickly realized Sánchez was “an extraordinary person…someone for whom it was worth risking everything.”
Nearly two decades later, Escobar, now 64, said he never expected they’d be caught up in a civic movement to try to bring peaceful, democratic change to Cuba. He said:
This was unimaginable.
Before meeting Sánchez, Escobar wrote for a magazine called Cuba Internacional. He watched in the 1980s as perestroika took root in the Soviet Union. He and some of his colleagues thought a similar restructuring might take place in Cuba. See 28-minute interview on the Cuba Money Project’s Vimeo channel.
Escobar decided to take a job with Juventúd Rebelde, the second-largest state-run newspaper behind Granma. He wanted to be in a position to push for change from within the socialist system.
But after a year and a half, he said his editors at Juventúd Rebelde had had enough of his articles. They refused to publish most of them because they were too critical of the system.
In December 1988, Juventúd Rebelde fired Escobar, ending his career with state-run media.
He began working as an independent journalist, publishing stories in Germany and other countries outside Cuba.
He met Sánchez in 1993. A mutual friend brought her over to Escobar’s apartment in Havana because he knew that he had a book that Sánchez wanted to read – “La Guerra del Fin del Mundo” by Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa.
Escobar said he quickly discovered that he had many things in common with Sánchez despite their 28-year age difference.
The “anguish” they shared was a need to have a worthwhile project that helped give their lives meaning. They needed a “life project,” as he described it, to break out of the monotony of life.
Escobar said he could never have predicted what followed. In 2007, Sánchez, now 36, started a blog called Generación Y, which turned her into a celebrity outside Cuba. Time magazine named her one of the world’s most influential people in 2008, citing her “charming but pugnacious slice-of-life portraits of Cuba.”
The magazine said, “Sánchez has practiced what paper-bound journalists in her country cannot: freedom of speech.”
A string of international journalism prizes followed, along with stepped-up scrutiny from the Cuban government.
Cuban officials were suspicious of Sánchez’ rise. They accused her of being a creation of U.S.-government financed organizations that were bent on destroying the Cuban revolution.
And now, Sánchez and Escobar complain, state security agents monitor all their activities and state-run media organizations regularly attack them.
Escobar said it’s “an abuse of power” for state-run media to discredit and defame citizens who have no chance to respond in the same way. He said:
The government shouldn’t do that to its citizens. It’s totally unfair.
Escobar said he is thankful for the Internet, which gives him the ability to express his views even though he has no access to the traditional media.
He said he and his wife have few material aspirations beyond having the technological tools – computers and cameras, for instance – to do their work.
He said it’s difficult to say if U.S. democracy aid to Cuba has had an impact because Cuban activists don’t readily talk about whether they receive money.
The subject of democracy aid is delicate. Said Escobar:
Money has thorns.
Escobar believes activists should reject any money that comes with strings attached.
Asked about U.S. policy toward Cuba, he said the American government has made “enormous errors” in its policies toward Cuba. The biggest mistake has been to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the Cuban government.
Cuban officials are tired of saying that they will negotiate with the U.S. if they are treated equally, Escobar said. As he sees it, the U.S. government acts like an FBI hostage negotiator and treats Cuba like a criminal who is holding hostages.
Unfortunately, he said, Cuban officials sometimes treat citizens as just that – hostages.
Cubans need to fight for their rights and push to change that, he said. But it is impossible to do any kind of political work in Cuba without money. He said:
You shouldn’t think you can do politics without financial resources. Here no one has money.
Cuban activists must either give up trying to create political change or accept aid from other sources, usually from the United States or European countries, he said.
He said it’s not fair for Cuba’s Communist Party to criticize activists who accept foreign money when the party uses public funds to help finance its activities
Escobar believe Cuba’s political system is any more open today than it was in the 1970s and ‘80s.
What has changed, he said, is that citizens have organized themselves and are fighting to win new space, thanks in part to technology and the Internet.
He said dramatic change could occur in Cuba if top leaders had the political will to change, but he does not believe they do.
Asked about the future, Escobar said:
I’m not a specialist in social change.
But he said he knows plenty about the lack of change that afflicts Cuba.
Ideally, Cuba’s top leaders will suddenly decide on the need for dramatic change and take action. That would be best for all Cubans, but would take a miracle to happen, Escobar said.
Other less desirable scenarios he envisions are a foreign invasion, a coup or a social explosion – and “none of those things are good.”
Yet another possibility is that Cuba’s historic leaders will simply die of old age and people with new ideas will replace them, he said.
Escobar would rather not wait for that to happen. He wants to see change before his son, Teo, grows old.
He recalled that after he and Sánchez got married:
Yoani was Reinaldo’s wife. Now I am Yoani’s husband. I hope in the future we’ll be known as the parents of Teo, our son.