Friday, November 1, 2013

Yoani & the USA 2.0

Between reform & repression, from catharsis to collaboration, & from protection to responsibility

This afternoon blogger, activist, and soon-to-be digital newspaper publisher Yoani Sánchez returned to Cuba after spending the better part of the month of October traveling between Mexico and the United States - with time spent in New York City, Denver, Silicon Valley, and South Florida, along with a quick trip to Europe tucked in between.

Her witty, hopeful, and penetrating presentation, "Disconnected Dissent," at the Google Ideas "Ideas Summit" (6:28 min.) is here (in Spanish with English subtitles).


  • You can go here to view the panel she shared at Columbia University with three other quite brilliant and brave Cabot journalism award winners (click on "Covering Latin America: Past, Present and Future").
Maria Moors Cabot past winners: Alberto Ibarguen, (Cabot '04, President, Knight Foundation), Alberto Dines (Cabot '70, Observatorio da Imprensa, Brazil), Gustavo Gorriti (Cabot '92, IDL-Reporteros, Peru), Yoani Sánchez (Cabot '09, Generación Y, Cuba)
  • Here to see her conversation with my students at Baruch College (link to video coming soon!). 
Yoani Sánchez at Baruch College.
  • Here to listen in on her engaging conversation at Stanford University's Program in Liberation Technology, "Reporting from Cuba: How Pixels are Bringing Down the Wall of Censorship."
  • Here and here for coverage of yesterday's talk at Valencia College in Orlando (video stream of entire event here).
  • And here to listen to her Google Hangout conversation with US diplomat Roberta Jacobson, conducted while Yoani was on the Google "campus" and Jacobson was in DC.  A big H/T to the folks at Roots of Hope for their tireless and enthusiastic help in coordinating her trip to Silicon Valley and south Florida.
Just tonight Yoani reported via Twitter that upon arrival in Havana she was forced to run the gauntlet of humiliation from Cuba's customs agents, who went through all her things - including the digital files on her various gadgets and USB drives - with a fine toothed comb.

She - and her husband Reinaldo Escobar who was traveling abroad with her for the first time - were eventually allowed to enter the country with all their belongings intact.  However, they assume that copies of all the physical and digital files they carried with them are now in the hands of state security.

(Cuba seems to be learning from the recent airport customs tactics of the US itself, which has subjected the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras to similar shenanigans - treating the customs/immigration areas of international airports in the US with the same legal "creativity" as it does Guantánamo Bay Naval Base - but in this case targeting the digital documents of US citizens)!

Good thing Yoani has continued her practice of radical transparency, never hiding and in fact repeatedly declaring her full intent to start a full-fledged digital newspaper in Cuba before the end of the year.

In fact, when she met with the US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power last week (a very sharp woman and equally good listener), I remember that she responded to the Ambassador's wishing her good luck with the newspaper with the comment:

"Well, more than a newspaper, we've really conceived of it as an exercise in democracy and journalism 2.0."

At the same time, she wouldn't tell me or the Ambassador the name of her newspaper, saying instead:

"When you hear the name, you're going to say to yourself - 'that's what it had to be called'."

A few important things I remember from her conversation with the Ambassador - which I repeat here on my blog only because I heard her say them again in different ways in many of her more public (and live-streamed or recorded) conversations at various universities and tech companies around the country (see above).

When Amb. Power asked her to share her take on the "pulse" of the island today given the much trumpeted economic reforms of President Raúl Castro, including the newfound ability to travel, Yoani used two potent metaphors to describe the dynamic situation:

Cuba can be characterized as caught between "the carrot of reforms and the stick of repression" and as a "train leaving the station."

As she had done back in March on her first visit to New York, Yoani recognized on the one hand that the reforms were both positive and moving in the right direction (that is, toward the market and toward greater autonomy for the people).

However, she also insisted that the reforms were far too timid (they can't even use the word reforms, using instead the euphemism "updating"), not being nearly fast or deep enough to meet the rising demands or increasingly desperate needs of the Cuban people.

She explained that the reforms represent Raúl's "carrot" for the portion of the Cuban population that demands a better standard of living and an end to the myriad ridiculous prohibitions of economic freedoms, but that these reforms are also systematically coupled with with the "stick of repression" immediately used against anyone whose demands go beyond the piecemeal economic reforms seen to date and "touch the monkey" of urgently needed civil and political changes.

In other words: We'll give you a bit of economic oxygen if you agree not to demand a political blood transfusion or a civil bone marrow transplant.  (OK, these bad metaphors are my own, not Yoani's).

She also characterized the current situation in Cuba as a train leaving the station.  She respectfully if pointedly rejected the notion that the reforms to date merely amounted to a "fraud," saying instead that the government has little choice but to enact them in an increasingly constrained domestic and international context - but is still trying to implement them in a way that maintains its top-down control and political power.

To paraphrase her always eloquent and penetrating analysis:

"The train is moving far too slow.  It is an old, rusty train full of parts that don't work.  And, of course, we can't trust the engineer at the helm.  He wasn't put there by the passengers.  But instead of standing on the platform and insisting that the train is going nowhere, I want to be on the train so I can have an impact on its speed, how it works, give voice to how the passengers feel, and above all to take advantage of the movement - of the little cracks in the wall - to ensure that its destination is not the same tired, intolerant, and totalizing place where we have been headed for more than 50 years."

Finally, as Yoani has said before, when Amb. Power asked her what she thought of US policy toward Cuba, she first described herself as a "popular diplomat," insisting that she has no other title or position that that of "citizen."  Still when pressed, she urged for the continuance of Obama's policy of openness to greater back-and-forth travel, engagement, and people-to-people contacts as such policies are oxygen for the Cuban people and much like kryptonite to the the supposed superman of the Cuban state (again my metaphor), which much prefers an aggressive and isolationist enemy in the White House against which it can rail over a firm but open-handed president who refuses to let US policy be set by hard-liners in Havana (I would have added - "or in Miami or Washington" - but she didn't say that!).

While Yoani was here in New York last week, and later as I followed her travels across the country to the HQs of Twitter, Google, and Facebook in Silicon Valley and to Stanford University earlier this week, and to Orlando's Valencia College yesterday, she also gave voice to the idea that upon her return to Cuba she will be putting the finishing touches on a collective digital newspaper project.  She contrasted this new "endeavor of collaboration" with her original (and on-going) project of personal reflection, idiosyncratic reportage, and intentionally subjective "catharsis" - her blog, Generación Y.
  
Finally, lest we think that we will no longer hear her signature voice, she assured the packed house at the 75th annual Maria Moors Cabot awards at Columbia University's School of Journalism that while the award has afforded her protection and made her ever more aware of her responsibility as a journalist, she insisted that her responsibility is:

"not 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."  But instead, to "engage each day in a better kind of journalism, from within the ant colony, from to point of view of the ant."

What follows is her acceptance speech - first in my English translation followed by her original Spanish.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger presenting Yoani Sánchez with her special Maria Moors Cabot citation, flanked by Steve Coll, dean of Columbia's School of Journalism, Josh Friedman, chair of Cabot awards, and a member of the Cabot family.

Cabot Remarks - Yoani Sánchez
Delivered, Monday, October 21, 2013

Good evening to everyone,

Tonight, being together with you, I want to recall the mixture of feelings that overcame me four years ago when I found out that I had won a special mention from the prestigious Maria Moors Cabot prize. As is always the case when someone gets such good news, my first sensation was one of joy, happiness, the desire to call all my friends to share the news. Then I started to imagine attending the award ceremony, sharing the words that I deliver tonight and receiving in my hands the prize medal. Nevertheless, the longest-lasting impact that winning this distinction has had - after the initial euphoria passed - was one of responsibility.
The responsibility of knowing that I am exercising journalism within a very battered society. In a country where a strict control over information has been erected as one of the most important mechanisms of political control. A society of barricades, where sharing one's opinion, reporting, doing an interview can immediately tar one as untrustworthy, as someone to be spied on and silenced. But, as in any society rife with censorship, I perform journalism in a nation where a simple chronicle, an op-ed column, or even a brief article of reportage also has the power to reveal reality, to liberate.
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. Like so many other Cubans, I have preferred to live and write, to breathe and blog, to walk and tweet, to be and also to narrate what I am and what surrounds me. This commitment brings with it a great responsibility, one that I felt with the greatest force when Columbia University honored me with this prize.
The responsibility to commit myself to help mend through words, what has been erected on a foundation of shouts and slogans. The responsibility to assure that the press contribute to finding solutions, to generate all those debates that we haven't been able to have in Cuba for decades. The responsibility to rescue those moments of history that were stolen from us. The responsibility to refuse to remain silent in a country where the mask is always more convenient and advisable than using one's own voice. In sum, the responsibility to engage each day in a better kind of journalism, from within the ant colony, from to point of view of the ant.

Thank you very much.

***


This year's Cabot awardees: Donna DeCesare (US-El Salvador), Jon Lee Anderson (US), Mauri Konig (Brazil), Alejandro Santos Rubino (Colombia), and Yoani Sánchez (Cuba).  

Buenas noches a todos,

Quiero hoy recordar junto a ustedes la mezcla de sentimientos que me embargó cuando hace ya cuatro años supe que había ganado una mención de este prestigioso premio María Moors Cabot. Como siempre ocurre cuando alguien recibe una buena noticia, la primera sensación fue de alegría, felicidad, deseos de llamar a todos los amigos para contárselo. Después sobrevino una fase en que me imaginé en la ceremonia de premiación, diciendo estas palabras que hoy pronuncio y tomando entre mis manos la medalla del galardón. Sin embargo, el efecto más duradero –después de la euforia inicial- pasó a ser la responsabilidad.
La responsabilidad de saber que estoy ejerciendo el periodismo desde una sociedad muy lastimada. En un país donde el estricto control sobre la información se ha erigido como uno de los más importantes mecanismos de poder político. Una sociedad de barricadas, donde opinar, reportar, hacer una entrevista puede ubicarte inmediatamente en el terreno de los no confiables, de los que hay que observar y acallar. Pero también, como en toda realidad llena de censura, hago periodismo en una nación donde una simple crónica, una columna de opinión o breve artículo pueden generar efectos de revelación, de liberación.
Nunca me ha gustado ver al profesional de la prensa como el entomólogo que mira al hormiguero desde arriba. Escribe en su impecable cuaderno de hojas blancas mientras allá abajo, las hormigas viven, matan, mueren. Yo soy una hormiga y quiero narrar el hormiguero desde adentro. Como tantos otros cubanos, he preferido vivir y escribir, respirar y bloguear, caminar y twittear, ser y también narrar lo que soy y lo que m rodea. Eso entraña una gran responsabilidad, que sentí con mayor fuerza cuando la Universidad de Columbia me agasajó con este premio.
La responsabilidad de comprometerse a ayudar a enmendar con la palabra, lo que se ha levantado a base de gritos y consignas. La responsabilidad de que la prensa contribuya a encontrar soluciones, a generar todos esos debates que no hemos tenido en Cuba por décadas. La responsabilidad de rescatar esos momentos de la historia que nos fueron arrebatados. La responsabilidad de no callarse en un país donde la máscara siempre es más cómoda y más recomendable que la propia voz. En fin, la responsabilidad de hacer cada día un mejor periodismo, desde dentro del hormiguero, desde la óptica de la hormiga.

Muchas gracias.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the summary - a really enjoyable read. I always think of Yoanni with great affection and great respect. Tirelessly resilient and always kinder than is strictly necessary. Your post captures those qualities very nicely.

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