HAVANA (AP) — Blogger Yoani Sanchez returned Thursday to the island homeland that officially considers her a traitor, concluding a more than three-month globe-trotting tour that cemented her status as the most internationally recognizable face of Cuba’s small dissident community.
Sanchez emerged from the airport in the evening, hugged her husband and son and greeted about a dozen relatives and friends who were on hand.
“It has been a marvelous trip,” she told reporters gathered at the terminal. “A trip that is going to change my life in many ways … and I have returned with lots of projects.”
Pleading exhaustion after a trans-oceanic flight capping a journey that lasted more than 100 days, she asked for time alone with her family and said she would speak more of her future plans after resting.
Sanchez has been on the road since Feb. 17, when she took advantage of a new reform ending a longtime requirement that all Cubans obtain permission to travel abroad. Under the old rules, government critics who are branded as “counterrevolutionary” sellouts were routinely denied exit visas.
Sanchez visited more than a dozen countries in Europe and the Americas and gave speeches criticizing President Raul Castro’s Communist-led government. She also met with human rights activists and foreign lawmakers, and cultivated relationships with journalists at leading Western newspapers.
In the process she picked up more than 100,000 new Twitter followers to top the half-million mark.
She is less well-known at home, however. Of 20 Cubans surveyed informally by The Associated Press this week in Havana, just seven said they had heard her name, and several of those were unclear on exactly who she was. Only three were aware of her global tour.
Her challenge now is to try to change that.
Sanchez has said a main goal of the trip was to prepare herself to launch an independent online newspaper in Cuba, something will surely rankle local authorities.
The government, for its part, will be closely scrutinized abroad for how it treats her. At the same time, by allowing her to travel it has undercut accusations from foreign capitals and human rights groups that it essentially held its citizens hostage through the now-scrapped exit visa requirement.
A number of other dissidents have also tested authorities’ patience since the January migration reform by going overseas and publicly bashing their government, and some have reported various levels of harassment upon their return.
Eliecer Avila said he was taken aside at the airport and subjected to an exhaustive search in which agents examined every item in his luggage and confiscated 26 books.
“They pulled me out of the line and had me in there for four hours and 15 minutes,” Avila said. “They took pictures of everything.”
Sanchez, however, said she sailed through immigration and customs.
Analysts say Sanchez’s rising international fame likely insulates her physically from arrest. She has told people close to her she expects to be the target of less detention but more propaganda offensives by the government and its allies.
A twitter account with the handle Yohandry Fontana, which fiercely defends Castro’s government and is harshly critical of Sanchez and other dissidents, went on the attack even before her plane was wheels-down.
“Today (is) the arrival of Yoani Sanchez to (hashtag)Cuba, the vacationer who received 90 days of training to topple the island’s government,” Fontana tweeted.
Earlier Thursday, Sanchez sent out a stream of messages recalling high- and lowlights of the tour, from hugging her sister in Florida and visiting the site of the fallen Berlin Wall to raucous protests by pro-Castro demonstrators who razzed her at several stops. She also thanked those who lent material and emotional support for the trip.
Before boarding her plane in Madrid, she posted a photo of herself at the airport lugging a small blue suitcase emblazoned with the logo of her Generation Y blog.
“Ready to leave for Cuba,” she tweeted, accompanied by a smiley-face emoticon matching her own expression in the picture.