Global Leadership Award, 2016
“Freedom is fundamentally the possibility of standing on a street corner and shouting ‘There is no freedom here!’ ”
Yoani Sánchez has been called a counterrevolutionary with dangerous, extreme views. Her blog about daily life in Cuba has generated controversy and a global following, and her latest project pushes the boundaries of what’ s possible: she has established the first independent digital news outlet in Cuba.
Born in a Havana tenement at the height of the revolution, Yoani came of age in the Special Period, a time of scarcity and extended economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a teenager she watched her parents fall into despair; the revolution’ s “promises of paradise” had failed them. When the Soviet Union crumbled, it took with it the aid and subsidies that had sustained Cuba. Yoani remembers eating spoonfuls of sugar to stave off hunger pains.
This new reality made her question everything. She became critical of the government, its ideology and absolute control. When her undergraduate thesis was called subversive, Yoani abandoned plans for a career in academia. Disillusioned, she briefly emigrated to Switzerland, where she nurtured an interest in computer science. But Yoani soon felt the pull of Cuba. She decided things would be different. “I am not going to accept things as they are. I am going to try to do something,” she remembers thinking.
Generación Y began as a form of personal therapy. Launched in 2007, it was a cathartic outlet for Yoani’s stifled expression, for personal stories of daily struggle on the island. In the early days she would sneak into hotels, speaking German and posing as a tourist to gain access to guest computers. Internet access in Cuba is among the lowest in the world. Only a few government-approved individuals are allowed connectivity at home, and an hour of wireless can cost $10, half the average monthly salary.
“After you cross certain lines, there is no way back,” says Yoani. When Generación Y drew international attention, her life changed. She has been kidnapped, arrested and beaten. Instead of deterring her, the government’ s response motivates Yoani; she says they wouldn’t react if they weren’t fearful that she’ s tapped into popular sentiment.
In 2014 Yoani launched 14ymedio, Cuba’ s first and only independent digital news outlet; the site is currently blocked in Cuba. With growing momentum, Yoani decided to move from personal expression into civic exercise. “It is a news outlet dedicated not only to reporting our daily reality, but also inciting our fellow citizens to question why things happen, how to improve them, and how to sketch that country of the future we all desire,” she says. Users find creative ways to access the site. Some read the news through email, social media or on their phones; others use anonymous proxies or read offline versions that are uploaded to USB drives and passed around.
Through 14ymedio, Yoani is redefining journalism in a country that has only known state-controlled media. For the first time, news is based on facts, not propaganda. The platform also transcends Cuba, offering an alternative way to view the Cuban reality – through the eyes of its people.
Yoani sees journalism as a medium to enact social change, especially in uncertain times. “It’ s an important moment for Cuba right now, a moment so in flux, where everything can either fall to ruin or be achieved.” She believes change is coming, and plans to be a part of it. “14ymedio aims to be the person, the citizen, and the eyes accompanying the Cuban people through the necessary transition that will inevitably happen on the island.”