She is small and slight, but I expected that.
She was direct and gracious, and, that, too, I expected. I had been told, by people who know her well, that she was warm and kind, and, above all, very Cuban. Cubanísima. And, yes, I now see that too.
What surprised me was that she admitted to being very afraid. Every day. She used a more prosaic, Cuban term to describe her fear, and we all laughed. But just a little. Mostly, we stood in silence, in awe of this 37-year-old woman, mother of a teenager, who could stand up to a government and to her detractors with an aplomb and a dignity that belie her fears and challenge all of our — all of my — notions of what is possible inside Cuba, inside a dictatorship.
Yoani Sánchez told us of her fears in private, though knowing she was surrounded by journalists at a get-together in my home shortly after our talk Thursday night with students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Josh Friedman, a colleague and a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, introduced her that night. And from the podium he proclaimed that Yoani was, indeed, a journalist. He didn’t call her a blogger or a dissident or an activist, but one of us.
I’ve never felt prouder to be a journalist, especially to be a journalist in the 21st century. To be part of a profession that has room for people like Yoani Sánchez, who uses the very technology that is challenging traditional journalism to show us that, indeed, the profession retains its power and its ability to change the world. When she was attacked in Brazil by a pro-Castro mob, her Twitter account increased by 35,000 followers, she said.
How can the Cuban government possibly stop this? At no other time in history have dictators faced a tool as dangerous for their survival as the Internet. They may curtail access— as they do in Cuba — but that doesn’t stop the message from getting out, and returning to the island through the boomerang effect of social media.
Years ago, when I began to write about political prisoners in Cuba, it would take months for news of their hunger strikes or beatings to reach Miami or Washington. Frank Calzón, a veteran human rights activist in Washington, D.C., and an admirer of Yoani, remembers how the messages were sometimes written in tiny handwriting on pieces of paper torn from Granma, the only newspaper the prisoners had access to. The irony of it was delicious, but too slow to make a difference. By the time Calzón and others found out, it was old news, though even then it found echo among those in the media who cared and were paying attention to the island.
Now, of course, if Yoani sneezes in Havana, the world hears about it in seconds. That’s her shield. That’s our responsibility as fellow journalists. And that’s the beauty of this brave, new world of journalism where 140 characters don’t replace a fully reported, nuanced story, but can alert us to one, and perhaps even save a life.
No matter how the message is delivered — 140 characters or 25 inches of copy — the important thing continues to be the message. And Yoani delivers her truth better than most.
I asked her how she learned to write so well. She said that, at the beginning, her husband, journalist Reinaldo Escobar, had helped her think like a reporter. But that her true school was the 14 years she earned her living as a guide and translator to foreigners who visited Cuba. Through their questions, she began to see the island as outsiders might. When she writes, she said, she looks at her copy from two sides: the insider and the foreigner, or as the writer and as the reader.
She has said she became “ periodista a la carrera, no de carrera.” Not a career journalist, but one shaped in a rush. It makes more sense in Spanish because of the play on words, but what she really means is that journalism is the only venue that allows her to do what she can for her country. And let there be no doubt: her passion for democracy is profound, but what drives it all is her love for Cuba.
During the talk with the students, she was brilliant and poised, as usual, and it was clear that she relishes talking to young, thoughtful people who ask intelligent and probing questions. What can we do, one asked, for the journalists of Cuba? Send cell phones, computers, flash drives, Yoani said. Anything that promotes communication, openness, freedom.
And that is the essence of good journalism: transparency and accountability. Yoani demands both from the government of Cuba, because to settle for anything else would be a betrayal not only of her principles but also of what she knows the people of Cuba deserve.