President Obama Posts on Cuban Writer’s Blog, Congratulates Her for Cabot Citation From Columbia

Nov. 19, 2009Bookmark and Share

On the blog of Cuban writer Yoani Sanchez, President Obama answered seven questions about U.S.-Cuban relations, and congratulated the journalist for the recent Maria Moore Cabot Prize citation she received from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. In his post, Obama also conveyed his disappointment that the Cuban government did not permit her “the ability to travel to receive the award in person.” 

In a ceremony held at Low Library on Wednesday, Oct. 14, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism honored winners of the 2009 Maria Moors Cabot Prize for outstanding reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean. Conspicuously absent from the ceremony, however, was Sánchez, a Cuban journalist who was awarded a Maria Moors Cabot Prize special citation for her blog, Generación Y, about life in communist Cuba. Sánchez was denied permission to travel to New York City to receive the citation.
Sánchez accepts her citation in a video that was shown at the award ceremony. (2:19)

“I am disappointed that the Cuban government refuses to let Yoani Sánchez travel to New York to receive a Maria Moors Cabot citation,” said Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism in a statement released the day before the award event. “Ms. Sánchez’s vivid commentaries on Cuba give us a lively sense of what is happening there. The Cuban government ought to value Ms. Sánchez’s work as a sign that young Cubans are ready to take Cuba into a better future—one that will have the free press the Cuban people deserve.”

In a phone interview, Sánchez, named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by TIME magazine, said she believes her Cabot citation “will help to validate the new phenomenon of the alternative Internet blogosphere.” The 34-year-old journalist launched her blog just over two years ago; it now receives more than one million hits a month even though access to the blog within her country has been blocked by the Cuban government. Recognition of her work “shines a bright light upon me and upon all those who are utilizing the infrastructure of the Internet to express different opinions and critiques about the Cuban reality,” said Sánchez.
 
At Wednesday’s ceremony, freedom of the press was discussed during acceptance speeches from the 2009 Cabot gold medal winners. “A movement to contain the freedom of the press is spreading all over Latin America in countries like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and, more recently, in Honduras,” said Merval Pereira, columnist for O Globo in Brazil. Pereira recently helped fight the establishment of a National Council of Journalism, which “would control the professional exercise of journalism” and “have the power to punish” journalists in his country.
 
Another awardee, Christopher M. Hawley, Latin America correspondent for USA Today and The Arizona Republic, paid tribute to the “the local reporters who put their lives on the line in the service of truth” in countries around the world. “Foreign correspondents parachute into these places for a couple of days, we ask questions and then we retreat,” he said. “But these guys are in the crosshairs every single day.”
 
Anthony DePalma, a former correspondent for The New York Times who has family in Cuba, drew attention to Sánchez in particular. “The old men in Castro’s Cuba consider her dangerous because she tries to do on her blog what we do here every day,” he said.
 
He went on to discuss the “exciting and sometimes disorienting” ways in which computers, the Internet and cell phones are changing journalism. “I think our craft will be okay,” he concluded, so long as technology doesn’t “replace curiosity, compassion, and courage as the most important skills a foreign correspondent needs to possess.”
 
In Havana, Cuba, where Sánchez lives and works, there are few Internet-connected computers available. With limited resources and spotty connectivity, she must quickly email her comments to devoted supporters who post to her blog in 15 languages.

Sánchez, who also received the Ortega y Gasset Prize in digital journalism and was denied permission to accept the award in Madrid in May, hopes her absence from the ceremony will help change Cuba’s travel policy. “If one day the travel restrictions end for Cubans,” she said, “it could be due in some small part to everything related to my receiving this prize and to my denial for travel.”

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