Yoani Sanchez, Cuba’s most prominent and outspoken dissident blogger, took her international tour to Washington yesterday, vowing to promote “responsible, objective journalism” on an island that has known anything but since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.
Sanchez, in remarks at the libertarian Cato Institute, said she plans to establish an independent digital newspaper upon her return to Cuba, one of the world’s most inhospitable places for searching journalism.
Sanchez, 37, has won international fame as a blogger who has stood up to the regime’s hostility while posting pithy ruminations and slice-of-life essays at her Generación Y (“Generation Y”) site, which has attracted a wide following outside of Cuba.
She is on an 80-day world tour, accepting honors and honors that she has won over the years but has not been allowed to collect. Sanchez told the audience at the Cato Institute that Cuban authorities denied her applications to travel abroad no fewer than 20 times over the past five years.
She was granted a passport in January, after the communist regime of Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and successor as president, eased travel restrictions.
She speculated that in permitting her to travel abroad, the regime may have hoped that she would not return to Cuba.
But, she declared, “I’m not going to stay in another country, and I’m not going to be afraid” of what the regime may have in store upon her return.
She said she likely will be the target of surveillance and harassment back in Cuba, but added that her prominence and outspokenness serve as “a protective shield,” making it less likely that Cuban authorities will treat her harshly.
Sanchez is dark-eyed, petite, and strikingly poised. She seems to wear the mantle of international fame comfortably, without evident haughtiness. Swaggering she is not.
She spoke through an interpreter, Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College in New York. Henken helped organize her visit to the United States, which included a stop in New York City to collect the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, given by Columbia University to recognize journalism that promotes inter-American understanding. She won the award in 2009.
Sanchez said yesterday that she never expected to gain international prominence through her blogging, and characterized her fame as “a joke of fate” and “a cross” that she bears.
Her travels outside Cuba — she visited Brazil and the Czech Republic before arriving last week in the United States — certainly have heightened her international profile. And her intention to start an non-governmental newspaper in Cuba could place her on a collision course with the Castro regime.
Sanchez said the newspaper she envisions will be digital-only, at least at first. That’s because the regime would outlaw an independent print newspaper as anti-government propaganda, she said.
Cuba’s media landscape is among the most repressive in the world. The non-governmental organization Freedom House ranks Cuba 190th among 197 countries and territories it assesses in its annual press-freedom report. North Korea is last in the Freedom House rankings; Finland, Norway, and Sweden are first.
Sanchez said social media platforms such as blogs and Twitter “have helped us create small cracks in the wall of censorship” in Cuba. But she said she’s under no illusion that social media will seriously threaten the regime. (Sanchez’s Twitter account has more than 450,000 followers.)
“By themselves,” she said, “these aren’t the instruments that will bring democracy to Cuba.”
Even so, she said, “you can’t imagine the speed with which information is circulating in Cuba.” It often moves hand-to-hand, in that someone uses a thumb drive to download information from the Internet — access to which is severely restricted — and passes the thumb drive from person to person, in what Sanchez called a “black market of information.”
Sanchez, who spoke without notes, also traced the recent trajectory of dissidence in Cuba. It was 10 years ago, she noted, when the Castro regime imposed a sweeping crackdown, rounding up dissidents and journalists and sentencing them to lengthy prison terms.
What is often called Cuba’s “Black Spring” crackdown took place when the world’s attention was trained on the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
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