In the spring of 1977, something extraordinary happened on Cuban television one day: A young American woman got Fidel Castro to admit, on the air, that there were political prisoners on the island. Not a handful or a few hundred, but thousands.
At one point, he said, more than 15,000 Cubans had been held for “counterrevolutionary activities.”
I was shocked and disgusted by the admission (the 1970s was a time of a total news blackout on the island and profound naiveté), but I was riveted by the woman asking the questions: Barbara Walters, who retired earlier this month after more than five decades as a trailblazer and a journalism icon. The ABC building in New York has been named in her honor.
Her interview with Castro, which played almost in its entirety on Cuban television, was the first glimpse we had of the way Americans thought of Castro and, therefore, Cuba. Then, and until recently, it was nearly impossible to separate the two.
The interview also served to inspire me. I looked at her, powerful and serene, seemingly at ease interrogating a man no one dared to question in Cuba, and I said to myself, “I want to do what she’s doing.”
Barbara and Fidel have both retired now. But the impact they had in their respective careers is undeniable, and the number of people they influenced — for good or bad — is impossible to quantify. Yet, as others have pointed out, we’ve moved on from the sort of interview that was her hallmark. Now, celebrities and world leaders — and their detractors — speak directly to the public. Cubans on the island or in exile no longer have to wait for American reporters to tell them what’s going in their country. In 140 characters or with a photo in Instagram we, literally, get the picture.
And now comes www.14ymedio.com, a digital publication launched Wednesday from Cuba, by Yoani Sánchez. She explains that she had long dreamed of having a newspaper in a country with no independent press in more than half a century.
The truly revolutionary aspects of this digital wonder is that it is a modest and readable news site with no apparent political bent but with a bit of an edge, and that both Yoani and her partner, journalist Reinaldo Escobar have said it would have to sustain itself economically, through, among other things, the sale of classified ads.
How many in Cuba will get to read it? In a country, with such low and expensive access to the Internet, that answer is elusive.
“They are ‘occupying’ a space (cyberspace) without asking permission but not trying to provoke gratuitously,” said Ted Henken, a CUNY professor of sociology and anthropology, who studies the Cuban blogosphere.
“It also remains to be seen to what extent that what is written at the site will be accessible to Cubans — via various formal and informal distribution systems — and how they can make the site financially self-sustaining, keeping it critical and objective, and maintain their independence,” he added.
The important thing, then, is not so much where www.14ymedio.com is now but where it will be. Two years from now, will it exist as a newspaper, sold openly in the streets of Havana and elsewhere as Yoani says she dares to dream?
Will it remain online but visited by millions? Will it be an important element in the transition that is all but inevitable?
One thing is certain. Yoani, who about a year ago said in New York that she was not a career journalist but had become one a la carrera — on the fly — must have decided at some point that journalism was the way to go. That among the many choices she had at her disposal — exile being one, for example — journalism was her way to contribute to the rebuilding of Cuba’s civil society.
A noble decision. For it’s hard to negate change to an informed people. Democracy is the logical choice of the learned and educated masses. The Castros understand this, having blocked the site the day it launched.
In one of the many tributes to Barbara Walters on the days before she retired, she said that she liked her interviews to begin and end strong. One of her favorite ways to end was to ask her subjects to finish a revelatory sentence about themselves:
“Sharon Stone is … ” — the actress replied, “very tired.” But others were more thoughtful in their answers. Kanye West said he was black, while Bill Gates said it was impossible to reduce a person to a word.
Through email, I asked Yoani to complete the same sentence about herself, but she didn’t reply. Inadvertently, though, Henken gave me the answer. “You gotta give this woman credit,” he said. “Yoani is a game-changer.”
That’s a strong ending, and also a strong beginning for 14ymedio.com.