FEIRA DE SANTANA, Brazil (AP) — Cuba's most recognizable dissident landed in Brazil Monday, cheered by supporters and hounded by protesters on her first stop of a three-month global tour and her first trip abroad in nearly a decade after being blocked 20 times from leaving the communist-run island.
Yoani Sanchez beamed when she arrived in the northeastern cities of Recife and then Salvador in Bahia state, basking in the fame brought by her influential blog and her columns in the Spanish daily El Pais and the Brazilian newspaper Estado de S. Paulo.
Yet despite the victory in freely leaving her country, Sanchez said it was not a sign of great change in Cuba.
"There is a difference between the reform we dream of and the reform that's possible. The reform that's possible, which is what the government of Raul Castro seems to be following, is that we can buy a new car instead of a used one, buy some goods we couldn't before," she told the Globo TV network. "However, the reform dreamed of, which is freedom of association and expression, it seems we won't get this too soon."
Sanchez was surrounded by supporters and journalists as she walked through the airport in Salvador, but at one point, protesters, some wrapped in Cuban flags, threw photocopied replicas of U.S. dollar bills at her. One protester got close enough to pull her hair.
A small group of pro-Cuba protesters held up signs that read "Yoani Sanchez is financed by the CIA" and "Down with the American blockade of Cuba, Yoani Sanchez is a persona non grata in Bahia."
Cuban authorities consider the small community of outspoken dissidents on the island to be traitorous "mercenaries" who accept foreign money to try to undermine the government.
"This is something you don't see in my country," Sanchez said, motioning toward the protesters. She called the protest a "shower of democracy and pluralism."
"I wish we had freedom like this in my country," she added.
Sanchez's Brazil trip was paid through online donations — the Brazilian director of a documentary she appeared in launched the fundraising campaign. The city government of Feira de Santana, where the film is being screened Monday, paid for her accommodation.
Ted Henken, a professor of Latin American studies at New York's Baruch College who studies social media and civil society in Cuba, is closely involved in arranging Sanchez's U.S. meetings and appearances. He said in an emailed response that the U.S. government "has not contributed one penny to her trip." He said the bulk of the money for the U.S. leg of Sanchez's trip is being funded by universities she'll visit.
"She is not being paid for her appearance by any of these institutions partly because — irony — the embargo prevents it. A small per diem is all that's allowed apart from covering travel and lodging costs," Henken said.
Sanchez's ability to leave her homeland was seen as a test of a new Cuba law, announced in October, that eliminates the exit permit that had been required of islanders for five decades. Cuban authorities can still deny travel in cases of defense and "national security," among other reasons, and some dissidents continue to face restrictions.
Still, the exit permit's demise is seen as one of the most significant reforms of President Raul Castro's ongoing plan to refashion some elements of the economy, government and society.
Brazil's most influential magazine, Veja, published a story this weekend alleging that Cuban diplomats were working with Brazilian leftists to organize protests against Sanchez during her stops in the country, where she is expected to stay for a week.
"That doesn't surprise me, it's part of an information war," she told the Salvador-based A Tarde newspaper. "Obviously I don't like it, but I understand that facing this siege is part of my profession."
Cuba's Embassy in Brasilia had no comment on Sanchez's trip. The office of Brazil's president didn't respond to requests for comment.
From Salvador, Sanchez traveled to the nearby city of Feira de Santana to participate in the screening of a documentary about press freedom in Cuba, which she appears in.
Sanchez's tour includes several stops in the United States, with appearances at universities in New York and other academic programs, visits to Google and Twitter offices and time with family in Florida.
She'll also travel to the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Peru, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, with potential trips to Argentina and Chile in the works.
On Twitter, Sanchez wrote of her trip that "the minutes are as intense as hours. Everything is beautiful!"
On her blog, Sanchez wrote of fellow Cubans offering support in Havana as she boarded her flight and of Venezuelans on the plane who befriended her but asked that she not put their photos online, to avoid trouble with their own socialist government.
After a layover in Panama, Sanchez began the longest leg of her initial journey. Once in the air heading toward Brazil, she wrote, she felt a "sense of physical and mental decompression. As if I had been submerged for too long without being able to breathe, and now managed to take a gulp of air."
"So far everything is going well," she ended the blog entry. "Brazil has given me the gift of diversity and affection, the possibility to appreciate and tell of so many astonishments."
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Havana and Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.