Forbidden freedom: Yoani Sánchez’s struggle for an open Cuba

Yoani Sánchez leaves a television station in Lima, Peru, after an interview on April 12, 2013. Sánchez was on an international tour after the Cuban government finally granted her a passport after 20 refusals in the space of five years. PHOTO: REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil
Thursday, July 3, 2014

By Heidi Fortes

Known as one of the worst places in the world to be a journalist, Cuba continues to repress, torture and jail journalists who express a critical view of the government. Under the leadership of Raoul Castro, Cuba has experienced positive economic reforms, but unfortunately a loosening of restrictions on free expression has not followed. While Cubans feel more confident speaking openly about the government without fear of being labeled a counterrevolutionary, putting those words into print can still merit hesitation.

Ranked 170 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 World Press Freedom Index, Cuba is one of the most hostile environments for free expression. However, some journalists continue to push the boundaries of free expression; dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez is one of them.

A Cuban native and philology graduate from Havana University, economic suffocation forced Sánchez to emigrate to Switzerland in 2002. Two short years later, she returned to Cuba. Upon her return, she and a group of fellow Cubans founded Consenso, a magazine dedicated to reflection and debate on the social and political issues plaguing Cuba at that time. Three years later, she began working as an editor and columnist for the web portal Desde Cuba, which hosted an online magazine and collection of blogs. Sánchez eventually started her own blog on the site, Generación Y, which she defined as an “exercise in cowardice” that allowed her to express what she couldn’t in a public space for fear of retaliation by the government.

The content of Sánchez’s blog primarily criticized the country’s political system and highlighted the difficulties of daily life in Cuba. The Cuban government blocked her blog in 2008, and did not unblock access for Cubans until 2011.

In 2008, Sánchez was invited to post blog entries on The Huffington Post, and later that year gained international acclaim when TIME Magazine named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. She was also the first blogger to interview U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009, who commented that her blog “provides the world a unique window into the realities of daily life in Cuba.”

In 2012, Sánchez and her husband were detained in Cuba en route to the politically charged trial of Spanish activist Angel Carromero. Prior to her release, pro-government websites reported that authorities were concerned that Sánchez would turn the trial into a ‘media show.’ Thirty hours later, Sánchez was released with several other activists.

In a report presented to the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) the following year, Sánchez wrote, “freedom of the press, of expression and of association in Cuba continue without improvement, despite the economic reforms, and meanwhile official repression with paramilitary characteristics is gaining ground against those who seek to demonstrate their political discrepancies.” She went on to cite that “there has been no lack of verbal attacks, threats, beatings and humiliation of all kinds. According to data compiled by the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission from January this year to the date this report is being presented [November 2013] arbitrary detentions amounted to some 4,000.”

Despite her history of being explicitly targeted by the government, Sánchez has continued to push the boundaries on free expression in Cuba. On May 21, 2014, she released Cuba’s first independent online newspaper, 14ymedio, in collaboration with her partner, journalist Reinaldo Escobar. The publication aims to enhance coverage of Cuban reality (by Cubans for Cubans), building on the success of Generación Y. Featuring two sections dedicated to: “Debates de Calidad” [Quality Debates] and “Fuegos Cruzados,” [Crossfire] the site provides a civil, objective and critical space for quality journalism and discussion amongst readers.

The Associated Press reported that 14ymedio was hacked within an hour of its launch, with Cuban visitors to the site being redirected to a website by well known pro-government writers, containing critical commentary on Sánchez. The hack lasted three days and ended only after Granma, the official publication of the Cuban Communist Party, had published an article discrediting 14ymedio as part of U.S. plans to “nourish disinformation and defamation campaigns against Cuba.” Sánchez took to Twitter to comment on the article, saying, “Granma is devoting itself to attacking me. Another clipping to keep for my grandchildren.”

While Cuban visitor traffic to 14ymedio is no longer being redirected, Internet connectivity is still the primary barrier keeping Sánchez from reaching her fellow Cubans. Cuba remains one of the least connected countries in terms of access to Internet, due to a lack of widespread communications infrastructure throughout the country. Only 2.6 million people (out of the country’s 11.2 million residents) have access to the Internet, and those that do are limited to state permitted sites. While it is unclear how long 14ymedio will be permitted to exist, Sánchez remains optimistic about the future of the website. She is confident that her work will continue to carve a more public and democratic space for free expression.

Unfortunately, systematic censorship by the Cuban government of dissenting opinions both on and off the Internet is nothing new. It is this censorship that has necessitated pioneers like Sánchez who challenge the state controlled mass media. Other digital journalism outlets such as Voces Cubanas, On Cuba and Havana Times are also nurturing debate amongst Cubans while taking care to report without gratuitously provoking the government. Taking to her Twitter account shortly after the hack, Sánchez tweeted, “Bad strategy by the Cuban government to redirect our site from Cuba…there’s nothing more attractive than the forbidden.” For the public interest of all Cubans, hopefully that sentiment will ring true.

Heidi Fortes (@HeidiFortes) is an economics and political science graduate of McMaster University and a freelance writer in Toronto.