"I'm an optimist. If I wasn't an optimist, I wouldn’t be able to live in Cuba. You need a lot of optimism to live in Cuba," Cuban journalist Yoani Sanchez said during a panel discussion at the eMerge Americas conference May 4. The panel was hosted by Jackie Nespral, the WTVJ news anchor and daughter of Cuban immigrants. Nespral pressed Sanchez on issues affecting the island nation, and Sanchez didn’t waver once as she fearlessly answered Nespral's questions.
The dissident blogger, one of Time's 100 Most Influential People, has garnered more than 665,000 followers on Twitter, the majority of whom don't live in Cuba. "Cuba is a country where there's very little internet connectivity; it's the country where there's the least connectivity in the entire Western Hemisphere," she reminded the audience.
But that didn’t stop Sanchez from taking to the net and sharing stories of her everyday reality under the Cuban government. Through the trademark ingenuity Cubans have come to be regarded by, Sanchez has done what is necessary to publish her writings on the web and render them untouchable by the censorship arm of the Castro government. She recently launched a full-scale operation, 14ymedio, a newspaper that features opinion and commentary by Cuba's independent journalists. Sanchez believes, and rightly so, that journalists will play an integral role in tomorrow's Cuba, where they'll be able to inform the public and urge people to reach to their own conclusions.
In many ways, Sanchez is optimistic: She envisions a day, not so far away, when the Cuban people will once again have the opportunity to choose their leader. She sees Cuba finally gaining access to the internet this year, noting that the government "has already come to terms with the fact that the Cuban people are finding out what's being censored" and that the United States has given clear directives regarding telecommunications companies helping establish internet connectivity. "In this case, hope is not enough," Sanchez said. "We need the Cuban government to say, 'OK, we are going to let Cuba enter cyberspace.'"
It’s a move that the Cuban government is no closer to making despite efforts to end the trade embargo with the United States. "After December 17, Cubans don’t have more food, more money, or more liberty. But we have more hope. We have the hope that we have ended a long period during which the Cuban government can blame a lack of resources on our neighbors to the north. Even if nothing has changed in the material or social realm, we have a lot more hope that something will change soon," she said.
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Unfortunately, Sanchez's voice, no matter how loud and far it rings, has not yet been the catalyst for like-minded Cubans to step forward and do the same. On a recent trip to Havana, I met with the leaders of an artist collective in Cuba who have gained access to the internet through their jobs in the Cuban government. Their internet presence has allowed them to create a network of artists within and outside Cuba and has permitted their work to be viewed worldwide. We discussed at length the possibility of developing a story for New Times, an idea the group was pleased about because it would surely lead to more work and recognition for the photographers. In today's Cuba, it's not as difficult to earn money under the table, thanks to an influx of tourists and the loosening of certain restrictions on Cuban-owned businesses. However, owning any type of business that's not geared toward hospitality is illegal; to call attention to this group's use of the internet to promulgate their skills would certainly be a risk.
After several conversations about how the article would take shape and where it would be published, our communication disintegrated.
"Fear is constant when you live in Cuba. It is not just the fear of physical harm or prison, or the fear of having to escape the country as so many have done. The worst fear is the fear of social death," Sanchez explained to the audience. "That’s what happens under a totalitarian regime that limits you in this way, where your neighbors are afraid to speak with you because of who you are. Or the sensation of living in a country where you don’t feel like you can be in the corners of your house without feeling like you're being listened to. If you are going to have an opinion in Cuba, you have to be ready to live in a glass house."
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