Be vigilant for those who remain in Cuba

Dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez talks about the risks of independent reporters in Cuba at a recent meeting of the Inter American Press Association.
Dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez talks about the risks of independent reporters in Cuba at a recent meeting of the Inter American Press Association.
David Zalubowski / AP

Yoani was here again.

I don’t say that lightly, and I don’t take it for granted. That the blogger can leave Cuba and return safely is a profound change. I marvel at and applaud the changes that allow her to come and go freely, normally.

That I can get away without writing her last name in that first sentence — Sánchez, for the non-initiated — is also a breakthrough, surely one of the happiest outcomes of the technology that has come to define and dominate our lives: we follow her on Twitter; we read her blogs; we think we know her; we feel protective.

And that’s all good. For without the watchful eye of thousands, Yoani could have easily disappeared already. Our vigilance keeps her afloat. Her talent and enormous courage keeps us vigilant.

She came to New York, among other things, to personally receive the Maria Moors Cabot special citation for excellence in journalism in the coverage and understanding of the Americas that she won in 2009, at a time when she was not allowed to leave the island. The certificate was awarded by the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

This year she’s been in New York twice.

She was as calm as ever, as articulate as the last time, as full of optimism and ideas. Her newest venture: She is hoping to launch a modern and digital newspaper from the island in December. “A newspaper of transition,” she called it.

I told her I thought she had been unusually quiet lately. She said she had been busy getting the newspaper ready to launch. Among other things, she has been pouring cement, transforming a small space into a newsroom. She has eight reporters, and she wants to cover Cuba, from potholes to theater openings, from human rights to cooking recipes. A normal newspaper.

In Cuba, to gather and transmit information outside the parameters of the government is a profoundly subversive act.

When she took the podium, with her long hair swept to one side and her Mona Lisa smile, she was met with a thunderous applause. People in the audience, most of them journalists from the Americas, understood her courage and her quest.

She said that when she learned she had won the citation four years ago, she felt elated at first. But, later, she felt the weight of a sense of responsibility.

“The responsibility of knowing that I am exercising journalism within a very battered society,” she said. “In a country where a strict control over information has been erected as one of the most important mechanisms of political control.”

And she went on: “I have never understood the role of a journalist to be that of the entomologist who looks down on the ant colony from above. Writing in her fine notebook filled with white pages while down below, the ants live, kill, and die. I am an ant and I want to write about life in the ant colony from within.”

Her hope, she said, is not only to narrate the Cuba of today but also to rescue “those moments of history that were stolen from us.”

She said that the idea for the digital newspaper came about precisely in November of 2009, shortly after she had learned of the Cabot citation and around the time when three men dragged her from the street to a car and proceeded to beat her up before letting her go, pained and bruised but untamed.

Earlier, in a panel before the ceremony, she talked about the importance of the Internet and the impossibility of censorship at a time when very little, if anything, can be kept private.

She told me how, more 20 years after his death, she learned who Pedro Luis Boitel was and how he died after a hunger strike in a Cuban prison in 1972. Yet, she learned that Orlando Zapata had died an hour after he succumbed to his own hunger strike in 2010.

Censorship nowadays, she said, is “like placing a door in the open sea.” Futile.

Attempting to stop Yoani is like that too. She’s placed her foot firmly against the crack in the door the government of Raúl Castro has created, and she’s pushing it open with all her might. There is no telling what she might do or how far she can get if she keeps pushing against that door, but not alone.

It is said that ants can lift many times their body weight, but it is also known that ants of the same colony work together. Yoani and others like her, who have chosen to remain in Cuba to transform the island from within, need our help and our vigilance.

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