Cuban Blogger Yoani Sánchez Makes First U.S. Appearance in Journalism School Forum

March 15, 2013

When democracy comes to Cuba, there will be a monument to the digital memory stick, said Yoani Sánchez, holding up her own red thumb drive.

Sánchez, a 37-year-old Cuban blogger, uses that thumb drive to send out her descriptions of life in Cuba on her blog, Generación Y, and on Twitter. She was at Columbia Journalism School on March 14 speaking about her work and the obstacles she faces—her first appearance in the U.S. since the Cuban government lifted restrictions on travel outside the country.

“I have waited four long years to be here,” said Sánchez, who in 2009 was honored with a special citation for journalistic excellence by the school’s Maria Moors Cabot Prize, but couldn’t accept it in person because Cuban officials denied her an exit visa. She plans accept the award at this year’s awards dinner in October, which will mark 75 years of the Cabot Prizes for outstanding reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Yoani Sánchez is a journalist, she is also a troublemaker,” said Joshua M. Friedman, director of the Cabot Prize, who helped arrange her recent visit and introduced her to a standing-room-only crowd at the school’s lecture hall. “Her blog gives the world a vivid sense of what’s going on in Cuba day-by-day.”

Sánchez’s talk was called “Primeras Palabras,” or first words, and was led by Mirta Ojito, an assistant professor at the journalism school who left her native Cuba by boat at age 16. Ojito asked questions first and then translated them into English. Responding in animated Spanish, Sánchez, wearing large silver earrings and with her long dark hair draped over one shoulder, described how thumb drives containing news from the Internet and videos produced in Cuban living rooms circulate hand-to-hand in Cuba, cracking a hole in the government’s control of the media.

Because Sánchez speaks German, she has posed as a German tourist to get into hotels, which are among the few places in Cuba where computers are available. In just minutes, she sends her blog and Twitter feed to supporters outside Cuba via email, or gives a memory stick to a visitor leaving the country. Her words are translated into 17 languages around the world, including English.

Bloggers and independent journalists are having an impact despite government repression, Sánchez said, adding that Cuban officials have been observing suppression of the Arab Spring with interest, while dissidents are learning about the use of social media and technology to promote change. Still, 75 Cuban journalists and activists are in prison, she said, but “in reality, all journalists in Cuba are in prison” because of repressive laws and censorship.

Sánchez hopes to bring an independent press to Cuba in the near future, first as a digital platform and later in print to reach a larger audience. “We have reached a moment of moving beyond individual bloggers and 140-character Twitter feeds,” she said, acknowledging that her plan could be dangerous because a free press is currently prohibited in Cuba.

Her visit to Columbia is part of an international tour that has included stops in Europe, Mexico and Brazil. In Brazil she was mobbed by protestors shouting that she is under the control of the Pentagon and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, accusations that were lies, she said, but don’t bother her because they are an expression of free speech. “Loud conflicting voices are part of democracy,” she said. “These are things we hope for in Cuba.” Her Twitter feed added 35,000 new followers as a result of news reports about the protests.

A student asked about a list of “40 questions for Yoani” that the Brazilian protestors circulated. “I love questions,” she responded. “I would like to ask 50 questions of the president of my country. Cubans should have the right to get their many, many questions answered.”

Asked what Cuban expatriates in the U.S. could do to help her efforts, Sánchez replied. “Send us access to technology, thumb drives, hard drives, computers, mobile phones,” even a phone card, she said. “If you travel to Cuba, leave some of the technology you have in your suitcase behind.”

—by Georgette Jasen