Yoani Sanchez is an unlikely champion of Freedom of Expression.
Born in 1975 in Havana, Cuba, Sanchez holds a doctorate in philology from the Institute of Pedagogy. She wrote her thesis, titled “Words under Pressure,” about Latin American literature during the dictatorships of the 1960s.
Instead of pursuing a career in philology, however, Sanchez decided to make a living giving Spanish lessons to tourists. One side benefit of that job, as reported by The Australian, was that as she met her students in hotels, she could use the hotel Internet connections to upload stories to a blog she created, called “Generation Y."
Generation Y blog is part of larger online news organization which Sanchez founded in 2004, called Consenso or “Consensus." Sanchez became Consenso’s Webmaster as well as one of the contributing writers and editors.
Yoani Sanchez in her home in Havana, Cuba.
Sanchez's blog is about the reality of living under a Cuban dictatorship. In her posts, she makes references to events, circumstances or emotions that represent how the Cuban people’s freedom of speech has been limited under Fidel Castro's rule since 1958. In one post, Sanchez used the food distribution policy as a metaphor to comment on the lack of freedom in Cuba:
“…Change the three pounds of dark and white sugar, the three monthly kilos of rice, and the packet of coffee I am given at the ration store, for one extended dose of freedom of expression. I know my shopkeeper will be frightened if I show him the bag while asking for a few ounces of ‘freedom of association,’ a couple of tablespoons of ‘free opinion’ and even a small portion of ‘freedom to decide.’”
Translation: “As of now, all Cubans can purchase personal computers, but the use of computers will continue to be illegal.”
Sanchez's blog is not well read in Cuba. According to the International Telecommunications Union, about two percent of Cuba’s population uses the Internet. Moreover, a report prepared by Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit organization, stated that the Cuban government only allows Cubans to access the Internet at public cafés or computer centers where the computers have monitoring software.
But Sanchez has built an international community of readers. She uses the platform of a blog as a virtual place where people can share their ideas on one general theme. Sanchez shared this goal with National Public Radio, a public radio network in the United States:
“What we're trying to do is to get people to reconnect to each other as individuals, as citizens. This is what I like to write about in my blog. I'm not a political analyst. I'm not even a journalist. I speak as a citizen.”
In a blog post, Sanchez wrote about the Cuban government’s refusal of a visa she needed to travel to Spain where she would have accepted the 2008 Ortega y Gasset digital journalism award – an award the American newspaper The Christian Science Monitor called “the Pulitzer prize of Spanish journalism.” Sanchez's blog post on her visa troubles received more than 3,000 comments--mostly from people criticizing the Cuban government and congratulating Sanchez.
One person wrote: “Through your blog, you are with us in Madrid, Barcelona…wherever you like.”
Although she cannot travel, Sanchez is not entirely isolated in Cuba. She has foreign friends who translate her blog posts into various languages: English, Polish, French, German and Italian. Besides connecting with her readers who often comment on her posts, she also collaborates with local bloggers, which The International Herald Tribune reported on:
“‘The Internet has become the only terrain that is not regulated,’ she said in an interview. Because Sánchez, like most Cubans, can get online for only a few minutes at a time, she writes almost all her essays beforehand, then goes to the one Internet café, signs on, updates her website, copies some key pages that interest her and walks out with everything on a memory stick. Friends copy the information, and it passes from hand to hand.”
Because it is a struggle for dissenting media to originate from Cuba, Sanchez’ site has gained popularity and has been the platform from which her ideas spread out into an international community that in its turn virally spreads her messages.
Sanchez's visibility and popularity raises the volume of her voice--making it harder for the Cuban government to silence her. By building her blog, Sanchez has demonstrated how online networking can be a powerful tool for communicating and disseminating news even in a place where freedom of expression is highly limited.
Sanchez is an example of how people even in lower-income regions of the world, can use new digital media to bring people together--and who together can then work to expand their Freedom of Expression.