* Cuban blogger puts new travel rules to the test
* Passes through Havana airport without incident
* Pledges to return and found a free press
By Marc Frank
HAVANA, Feb 17 Cuba's best-known dissident,
blogger Yoani Sanchez, checked in without incident at Havana's
international airport on Sunday on her way to Brazil, the first
stop on an 80-day-tour of a dozen countries.
She was sent off with hugs by a small group of family
members and friends.
Sanchez was granted a passport two weeks ago under Cuba's
sweeping immigration reform that went into effect this year,
after being denied permission to travel more than 20 times over
the past five years.
"I made it through immigration, now I only need to board the
plane and take off," said Sanchez, who has promised to tweet
throughout her saga.
In another tweet to her followers as she waited to board her
plane, she added: "To tell the truth, my knees haven't stopped
Sanchez is one of a number of high profile government
opponents who have received a passport under the new
regulations, but the first to actually take advantage of the
A few lesser-known dissidents have been denied passports.
Sanchez criticized the new law for not simply granting all
Cubans the right to travel, but told Reuters at the airport, "I
plan to take full advantage of it and push it to the limit."
The old travel law was put in place in 1961 to slow the
flight of Cubans after the island's 1959 revolution.
The new law scrapped the much-hated requirement of having to
obtain an exit visa and loosened other restrictions that had
discouraged Cubans from leaving and traveling.
It was one of the wide-ranging reforms President Raul Castro
has enacted since he succeeded his older brother, Fidel Castro,
There are still travel restrictions, mainly for national
security reasons and for those with pending legal cases.
PRIZE MONEY FOR A FREE PRESS
Sanchez, who has won a number of international prizes for
her blog but has been denied permission to travel to collect
them, said she would now do so and planned to use part of the
prize money to "found a free press in Cuba."
"I plan to visit various media and make contact to learn how
a modern press runs," she said.
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, and using Twitter
to denounce repression.
She is one of the world's best-known bloggers and has tens of
thousands of followers abroad, but few in Cuba where the
government severely restricts the Internet.
Her blog is named after the penchant of Cuban parents during
the Cold War era of Soviet backing for the island of choosing
names for their children starting with "Y" because of the many
popular Russian names starting with that letter.
Sanchez, considered Cuba's pioneer in social networking, told
Reuters earlier this week that she would visit the headquarters
of Google, Twitter and Facebook, and travel to
Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, the United States, Spain,
Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic and other countries.
Cuba's leaders consider dissidents traitorous mercenaries in
the employ of the United States and other enemies. Official
bloggers regularly charge that Sanchez's international renown
has been stage-managed by Western intelligence services.
But Sanchez is also a critic of U.S. policy toward her
homeland. In a recent blog, she said the decades-old trade
embargo had failed to stifle the Cuban government and was
exploited by Havana as "a big bad wolf to blame for everything."
"The big news is not now, but in 80 days when she will
return," Bert Hoffmann, a Cuba expert at the German Institute of
Global and Area Studies in Hamburg, said.
"Many regime opponents have left Cuba for exile, but this is
the first time a prominent dissident sets out on a high-profile
world tour to then come back to the island."
Sanchez's travels and eventual return to Cuba are being
carefully monitored by governments and human rights advocates as
a test of Cuban authorities' commitment to free travel.
"She is gone, now let's see if the government lets her back
in or forces her into exile," a European diplomat said.