By Susy Schultz
Yoani Sanchez will tell you she is a philologist—which, she says in Spanish, is “as far away from a journalist as you can get.”
In fact, the internationally recognized Cuban blogger likes to keep insisting she is not a journalist. It is the only point she gets wrong in an hour and a half of discussion.
Two weeks ago, Sanchez, who has been blogging about life in Cuba since 2007, made a bold move — she launched an online independent Cuban newspaper, 14Ymedia.com.
She was in town last week as a guest of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, chosen by the council as its 2014 Gus Hart Visiting Fellow, which recognizes “an emerging Latin American leader who is contributing to the advancement of society through economic, political, and social reform.”
To those outside Cuba, Sanchez is a dissident — a voice of the people inside Cuba, a country shut off from so much of the rest of the world.
But this online newspaper is to serve Cubans with its team of 11 — even though not even 25 percent of those in Cuba have Internet service, she says, speaking to a small group of academics and journalists at the Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism’s downtown newsroom during the first days of her visit.
Sanchez and her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, who does call himself a journalist, direct the team. But they can’t do that in their own offices, as it’s not safe for everyone to work in one place.
Instead they pass computer stick drives and mini-cards among themselves as they teach and mold their storytellers.
And the stories are not rants about the political powers. In fact, they will include the government side to the stories. But Sanchez and her staff want their readers to read about more than politics: housing, baseball, TV, the prices in the marketplace.
Which is almost revolutionary in itself.
One week before the launch of the site, six of the journalists were asked to come into Cuban security offices for interviews.
The week it launched, the site was blocked.
And when Sanchez left Cuba this past weekend , it was blocked again.
“Cuba is filled with red lines — topics off-limits for discussion,” she says. “Even an average citizen commenting on real life is crossing this line.”
She says the biggest of the lines is the one around the image of Fidel Castro.
“We have taken the editorial position to refer to him as the ex-president,” she says—this in contrast to the government-run media, which insist on referring to him as “our glorious and invincible commander in chief.”
She does all this with full knowledge of the risks. “In a totalitarian regime, protection is not a possibility,” she says. “At any moment, anyone can come in and confiscate our computers and arrest us.”
But there does remain one safeguard: visibility.
“Twitter has protected me,” says Sanchez, whose Twitter handle is @yoanisanchez and has more than 612,000 followers.
“If I go a few hours without tweeting,” she says, “my followers know to start asking.”
And Sanchez is counting on the hope that Cuba, with its crumbling infrastructure and economy, cannot afford to be attacking a 38-year-old woman who values the integrity of her work above her safety.
“My biggest fear is not that they will harm us,” she says, “but that they will find a way to infiltrate our staff and compromise the quality of our work.”
But while she can, this self-proclaimed non-journalist will continue working to change Cuba, one story at a time.
She knows there is no turning back. “I can’t unsay all that I have said,” she says.
Susy Schultz is a Chicago journalist and president of Community Media Workshop located in Columbia College Chicago, where she teaches the power of storytelling.