Yoani Sánchez, UM’s first Distinguished Presidential Fellow, inaugurated the UM Cuba Forums lecture series.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (October 25, 2016)—The 11-year-boy and his mother had come far—all the way from Cuba to the jungle of Panama’s Darién Gap. Now, the only thing they needed to do was cross the treacherous swath of land where bandits, vipers, and jaguars often lurk. Surely no easy task.
Traveling with the two, who were part of a small group of migrants trying to reach the United States, was an independent Cuban reporter.
“During a pause in the trip, the boy asked me what I did for a living,” Yoani Sánchez, the blogger who has achieved international fame for her critical portrayal of life in Cuba under the Castro regime, told a University of Miami audience of more than 350 people Monday evening.
“I told him I was a journalist, and his face lit up,” she said. “ ‘Then, you’re going to help us get out of here,’ the boy said. But the fact was, I couldn’t do much to defend him from the poisonous snakes and the mosquitoes that made their route more difficult. I couldn’t even protect him from the rain that fell all the time. The only thing I could do was tell their story.”
And as she has done in countless other articles chronicling the plight of Cubans, Sánchez did just that.
“Being a reporter doesn’t mean you’re a super hero,” Sánchez said from the University’s Newman Alumni Center, where, as a newly named UM Distinguished Presidential Fellow, she delivered the lecture, The Power to Tell a Story: Daily Life in Cuba through the Lens of an Independent Journalist. “Being a journalist simply means being a chronicler of reality, using words and images to tell what’s going on.”
The lecture served as the launch of UM’s Cuba Forums, a future series of lectures that will explore the country and its people.
Sánchez, who started the blog Generation Y, which she published by emailing entries to friends outside Cuba who then posted them online, said journalists working in countries where their freedom and lives are at risk because of what they write often produce stories of despair and anguish that do not lead to solutions. “As primary care physicians, we reporters are there in the best of times in the lives of people and also in their worst moments,” she explained. “We cannot cure the issues they face, but we can make an X-ray of what happens to them and a diagnosis of the evil they suffer.”
During a three-decade stretch, from the 1960s to the 1980s, reporters in Cuba found it impossible to do their work outside the narrow framework of the government. But it wasn’t solely the fear of reprisals that made it difficult for them to report accurately and responsibly, but the reality that local newspapers and other media had “become as guarded as military barracks,” said Sánchez.
By the mid-1990s, the Cuban independent journalism movement took root, aided by technology that allowed reporters to publish on foreign websites. Those initial independent reporters established the pillars of nongovernmental media but paid a price, many of them being imprisoned, Sánchez explained.
Today, the independent media in Cuba is exploding. In the last three years, Sánchez said, several digital sites have emerged, reporting on news, sports, and other topics without the fear of government control. “All of them share the desire to reflect the plurality of a diverse country that’s living through an important moment in its history,” said Sanchez, who founded Cuba’s first independent daily digital news outlet, 14ymedio.
“The new alternative reporters also have the commitment to raise the quality of media in Cuba and improve the standards of the profession. But it’s not just a matter of denouncing. It’s also a matter of telling,” she said, explaining that journalists need to report on topics such as the emerging Cuban economic sector making progress despite restrictions, high taxes, and the absence of a wholesale market.
Sánchez, part of the 100 endowed talents initiative introduced by UM President Julio Frenk at his inauguration last January, credited technology in the form of USB flash drives and smartphones for helping to disseminate news out of Cuba. The emergence of social media has also helped, as incidents such as police and human rights abuses and the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew in Cuba have been posted on Facebook, YouTube, and other online social networking sites.
The event began with a welcome by Sarah Betancourt, president of UM’s Federacion de Estudiantes Cubans, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
After her lecture, which was given in Spanish, Sánchez answered questions during a Q&A moderated by Frenk. When asked her opinion of the Obama administration normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba, she said the policy, despite its best intentions, has not improved conditions for many Cubans, especially those who find it difficult to buy food on a daily basis.
One woman, who said her father was a political prisoner in Cuba and died in one of Fidel Castro’s jails, asked Sánchez what a post-Castro Cuba will be like, to which she replied that while the Castro regime will end, “what comes later is the real challenge.”
“I believe Cuba has lots of potential. There is great human capital, which has a lot more to do with the DNA of a nation,” said Sánchez, going on to explain that the exile community and younger Cuban generation could play major roles in the island nation’s reconstruction.
As part of her activities as the first UM Distinguished Presidential Fellow, Sánchez lectured at the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Communication, and she was also the host of a Jeffersonian-style dinner with 13 students leaders, many of them Cuban-Americans.
During the events, she explained how technology is opening up new avenues of expression for Cubans living under the Castro regime, and how Cuba’s totalitarian government cannot control the accessibility and immediacy to technology.
At the School of Communication, she spoke to about 150 students in Associate Professor Sam Terilli’s Freedom of Expression Class. “When the Berlin Wall fell, the Cuban government did not give us any news,” she said. “It took five years for Cuban citizens to know that the Berlin Wall had fallen. Nowadays, when a dissident group is assaulted or imprisoned, it takes about 24 hours for that video to hit the Internet.”
Cell phones are widely available on the island. “You cannot stop technology,” she said.
Sánchez also said that while she approves of renewed relations between the island and the U.S., she resents the fact that many people, after seeing a string of celebrities such as Madonna and Mick Jagger visit the island, now believe Cuba has changed. “Cuba has not changed,” she told the class. “The concerts will help, but the only thing that could really bring about change is for Cuban citizens to push for change, and unfortunately that is not happening.”
University Communications’ Barbara Gutierrez contributed to this report.