Like so many of her followers, we’ve been watching Yoani Sánchez’s international speaking tour. Just this month, the well-known Cuban opposition blogger came at my invitation to our nation’s capital, where, in a rare appearance, she shared her views on life inside today’s Cuba. During her hour-long visit, she met with members of Congress from both sides of the political aisle.
And her message was bell-clear: The Cuban people are still struggling for freedom and democracy — and, they need our help.
Despite Cuba’s incredibly restrictive laws governing free speech and freedom of the press, Yoani has found a way to stay connected with the world, via the Internet. Millions of people now follow her on Twitter and read her blog, Generation Y.
She’s illustrative of how the social media are slowly overtaking the repression and control of authoritarian regimes everywhere, including communist Cuba. Sánchez fittingly summarized the situation last week, saying: “It took me a full 10 years to see images from the fall of the Berlin Wall. But my son was able to witness the images from Tahrir Square almost exactly as they were happening.”
Still, we must remember that some of her fellow dissidents have been silenced — some forever.
It was just 10 years ago this month that the regime conducted one of its severest crackdowns of democracy activists and journalists, known as Cuba’s “Black Spring.”
And, of course, there’s still one of our own — Maryland native [and USAID worker] Alan Gross — languishing in a Cuban jail for nearly four and a half years now. We must remain unrelenting in our calls for his release and safe return home.
More recently, new details emerged in The Washington Post regarding the death last summer of popular Cuban opposition leader Oswaldo Payá. From the safety of his native Spain, Ángel Carromero, the driver of Payá’s car the day Payá died, finally gave his version of events leading up to the mysterious crash that killed Payá and fellow Cuban activist Harold Cepero.
Their vehicle, according to Carromero, was being followed by another car with government plates, before it was suddenly hit with a “thunderous impact from behind” and run off the road. Payá, the man who had orchestrated the largest democratic petition drive in Cuban history, was killed. Carromero’s detailed account of the July 22 crash matches that of other witnesses.
Given this new information, and my discussion with Yoani Sánchez, I have now asked the head of the United Nations to direct a thorough independent investigation of the events leading up to Payá’s death. Such an investigation should begin immediately.
Payá will forever be remembered as one of Cuba’s best known dissidents. But the causes that he championed — freedom of speech, press and enterprise — continue to elude the Cuban people. That’s why this investigation is critical. Without it, further reform is easily undermined or avoided, altogether.
Meantime, Yoani’s visit to the United States is a welcome development that indicates some seeds of change are beginning to take root on the island.
On an 80-day world tour of a dozen countries, after a decade of being barred from leaving Cuba, Sánchez next plans to visit Miami. On April 1, she’ll speak at the iconic Freedom Tower — significant because that’s the site where many Cuban exiles were processed upon their arrival in the United States.
I’m planning to join her there in support of her call for democratic reforms in Cuba. These, I believe, must include the release of Gross and the investigation into Payá’s death.
*Bill Nelson is Florida’s senior U.S. senator.
This column was previously published by The Miami Herald