Late last October, as I accompanied Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez in a cab ride from LaGuardia Airport to her hotel in Manhattan, we talked nonstop about what had changed in Cuba during 2013 and about her plans for 2014. Two things she told me then were particularly striking.
First, she apologized for having trouble hearing since she was still cleaning dried cement out of her ears and hair! It turned out that only hours earlier she was breaking down old walls and building new ones in the apartment adjacent to hers on the 14th floor of the apartment building she shares with her partner, the journalist Reinaldo Escobar. She smiled broadly and said, "We've had the idea of launching an independent newspaper for years, but now we finally have a space where we can make it happen!"
I wondered about her obviously upbeat spirit but questionable physical security as she faced the huge financial, logistical, and political challenges of making this work in a place like Cuba. She only smiled again and said, "I'm more confident and optimistic than ever. I'm addicted to hard work and I think I've chosen a task that will give me it in spades for years to come."
This attitude reminded me of something the Cuban editor Dagoberto Valdés once told me about his experience publishing Vitral, an independent Catholic magazine in Pinar del Río during the previous decade: "When I pray," he said, "I don't ask for a light load, but instead for a strong back."
Now more than six months later we witness the birth of 14ymedio (named for that 14th floor in this 14th year of the new century together with the "y" of Sánchez's now famous blog, Generación Y). I am convinced that her contagious optimism and never-say-die work ethic are the essential ingredients of the "special sauce" that will make this innovative venture a success.
As has been widely reported, Cuba is now home to a new, independent digital newspaper. 14ymedio went live Wednesday and looks to be a true Web 2.0 animal. The site has loads of interactive links to social media and a smart design that allows readers to easily convert content into a PDF or text file for quick downloading and sharing in the Cuban offline world.
The site also smartly avoids gratuitous insults and facile language about "the bloody dictator," preferring to illustrate what it stands for. The goal of 14ymedio is to provide a civil, objective, and critical space for the kind of quality journalism that is necessary, in Sanchez's words, "to accompany Cuba during its inevitable transition to democracy." To this end, 14ymedio features two sections dedicated explicitly to the exchange of ideas: "Debates de Calidad" (quality debates) and "Fuegos Cruzados" (crossfire).
Two key questions remain unanswered.
- To what extent will the content of 14ymedio be accessible to Cubans in Cuba, either on the site itself or via the island's various informal digital media distribution networks?
- How can Yoani & Co. make the site financially self-sustaining and keep it simultaneously critical and objective, while maintaining journalistic independence?
Sánchez is clearly throwing down the gauntlet with 14ymedio, but doing so in a civil, professional way. She's trying to further expand and enhance coverage of the Cuban reality (from Cuba, by Cubans), building on the success of Generación Y itself and on Cuba's many other pioneering digital journalism projects (Voces Cubanas, On Cuba, Havana Times, Primavera Digital, etc.). They are all "occupying" a space (cyberspace) without asking permission but also without the aim of provoking the government gratuitously, with the hope that this combination can lead to more truly public, democratic spaces on the island.
We will soon see how and to what degree the government responds. The Associated Press has already reported that 14ymedio was almost immediately hacked after it went live, sending readers trying to connect from within Cuba to an "anti-Yoani, all the time" website. This tactic may pay short-term dividends for whoever is behind it. However, I expect that it will serve only to draw more attention to the launch of 14ymedio and make the long-forbidden fruit of an independent media even more attractive to Cuban readers still suffering from the island's self-imposed blockade of ideas.