Published November 19, 2009
HAVANA – President Barack Obama has answered questions submitted by a celebrated Cuban blogger, saying he isn't interested in "talking for the sake of talking" with Raul Castro and indicating he won't visit the island until the communist government changes its ways.
In an unusual written response to Yoani Sanchez, who has gained international acclaim for daring to criticize her government online, Obama also said it is up to Cuba to act if it wants normal relations with Washington, saying that a true thaw in nearly 50 years of deep-freeze "will require action by the Cuban government."
His comments were posted Thursday on Sanchez's blog, "Generacion Y," which like most sites critical of the Cuban government is blocked on the island.
Sanchez uses caustic, often witty posts to provide an inside look at a communist state, writing about such daily hardships as food shortages and tensions caused by a lack of freedom of expression and assembly.
Obama assured Sanchez that the United States "has no intention of invading Cuba," a Cold War concept that top Cuban officials insist is still a possibility.
Raul Castro, who took over the presidency from his ailing brother Fidel in February 2008, has said he would be willing to meet with Obama and has even suggested they should sit down at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Obama told Sanchez he doesn't want empty dialogue.
"I am not interested ... in talking for the sake of talking," he wrote. "In the case of Cuba, such diplomacy should create opportunities to advance the interests of the United States and the cause of freedom for the Cuban people."
Obama answered seven questions from Sanchez, with his responses running more than 1,000 words. Sanchez said he wrote in English but that his office provided a Spanish translation, which she posted. The White House confirmed the responses came from the president.
Reached at home, Sanchez declined to comment, referring all queries to her blog. But her husband and fellow blogger Reinaldo Escobar said that she had sent printed copies of her questions and electronic versions to the White House more than three months ago.
"We had very little hope (Obama) was going to answer," Escobar said. "He's the president. He is very busy with other things."
Escobar said Obama's response arrived Wednesday night but declined to give details, saying only that they came "through official channels," a possible reference to the U.S. Interests Section, which Washington maintains in Havana instead of an embassy.
Sanchez then prepared seven questions for President Castro, turning in a copy at an office of the Council of State, Cuba's supreme governing body, on Thursday.
While Sanchez has been deeply critical of Cuba's government, she also opposes Washington's 47-year-old trade embargo against her country. On Wednesday, she used her blog to call the sanctions "clumsy."
Obama has said he doesn't plan to lift the embargo, but has removed limits on Cuban Americans who want to send money to or visit their relatives on the island.
Legislation has been introduced in both the U.S. House and the Senate to end the travel ban for other U.S. citizens. Currently, visitors to Cuba must usually obtain a license from the Treasury Department for official government, journalistic, religious or humanitarian purposes.
Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee debating the travel ban in Washington on Thursday read portions of a statement Sanchez sent to them in support of lifting it.
"Over the course of several decades, Cuban exiles and tourists have brought part of the information that has served to undermine the myth of the supposed 'paradise' in which we live," she wrote.
Asked if he planned to travel to Cuba, Obama told Sanchez he "would not rule it out" but indicated he wouldn't do so until the government embraced political reform.
"I look forward to visit a Cuba in which all citizens enjoy the same rights and opportunities as other citizens in the hemisphere," he said.
Obama also said he was personally disappointed the Cuban government in October denied Sanchez permission to travel to New York to accept a journalism prize. It was the second time this year she has been barred from leaving the island.
As she walked to a march against violence in Havana on Nov. 6, Sanchez says two men in plainclothes forced her into an unmarked sedan, pulled her hair and kicked her. The confrontation was so violent, Sanchez said, that she thought the men might kill her, but instead they dropped her off near her apartment.
She blames state security agents, who routinely follow members of Cuba's tiny political opposition.
Time magazine recently named Sanchez — whose blog gets about 1 million hits a month — one of the world's 100 most influential people. But her popularity exists overseas since Internet access on the island is extremely limited and her blog is blocked.