Last night’s scenario was breathtaking: a circular hall with high ceilings, marble columns, tables draped with heavy tablecloths and soft bouquets, and journalism personalities elegant in cocktail dresses and tuxedos. And poised behind a wood podium, a black screen silently reminding all those present of who was not there.
Thirty-four-year-old Cuban Yoani Sánchez was one of four journalists honored yesterday at the Maria Moors Cabot Prizes, given every fall by Columbia University’s School of Journalism for outstanding reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean. She was the first blogger in the Cabot’s 71-year history to receive the prestigious award, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger stressed during his speech.
But Sánchez was not there last night. Earlier in the week, Cuban authorities told her she would not be allowed leave the island, and would not travel to New York. This is the fourth time the blogger has officially been denied permission to leave Cuba—once to Spain, then to Italy, Mexico, and Brazil, she told international reporters as the news broke. She added that Cuban immigration authorities have simply ignored her other requests.
Sánchez writes the blog Generación Y, which, along with six others, is hosted by the German-based portal Desde Cuba (From Cuba). The blog records her observations on politically motivated arrests, food shortages, and problems in Cuba’s renowned education and health systems, among other things. Recognized as the pioneer of the Cuban independent blogosphere, Sánchez describes herself as a Cuban citizen writing about what she sees everyday. But at last night’s award ceremony, Josh Friedman, director of the Cabot Prizes and a CPJ board member, described her as the perfect journalism student. And as such, over the last two years, Sánchez has received a slew of other international recognitions, including the prestigious Spanish Ortega y Gasset journalism award. She has yet to attend any of these ceremonies.
Sánchez’s absence was heavily felt throughout the night. Over drinks at the initial reception, conversations were about her. Inspired by her blog, Bollinger’s speech traced the path of bloggers in the region. And her fellow awardees—Anthony de Palma from The New York Times, Christopher M. Hawley from The Arizona Republic, and Merval Pereira from the Brazilian daily O Globo—praised Sánchez for her work.
At half past 9, the room went silent and Sánchez appeared on the black screen behind the other three awardees and their gold medals. Sitting in broad daylight, in a park in Old Havana, Sánchez accepted her award as encouragement from the international community for the work that she and other independent Cuban bloggers are doing. In Bollinger’s words, blogging is the only independent journalism that exists today in Cuba, where constitutionally, the state controls all the media.