Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban blogger best-known for her critiques of the Castro government, has created 14ymedio, a digital newspaper (published in Spanish) which will cover issues regarding the Caribbean island and which may well attract the attention of Cuban authorities (though Sánchez has declared that it is not meant to be an opposition newspaper). The site went live May 21.
Sánchez and her followers will rely heavily on social media to maintain momentum for their new journalistic outlet as it will be solely digital. So far, the initial support has been positive: 14ymedio already has more than 4,000 followers on Twitter and more than 1,600 on Facebook.
The blogger gained international notoriety for Generación Y, a site where she published a plethora of analyses on Cuban issues and, more often than not, critiqued the Cuban government. She was denied permission to travel abroad, though this changed in late 2012 when Havana relaxed its requirements to allow its citizens leave the island. Sánchez then embarked on a world tour during which she received numerous awards for her journalistic work and advocacy for freedom of speech. While in the U.S., she gave presentations at the CATO Institute in downtown Washington DC as well as the Columbia Journalism School in New York.
It is safe to assume that 14ymedio will be a big international hit, since it provides individuals, including analysts such as myself, another news outlet, aside from state-run media, where it will be possible to learn about Cuban affairs. 14ymedio has already published several provocative stories: in its initial issue it posted two articles that deal with social issues: one about the increasing street violence in Havana, and another about the unfair state practice of favoring baseball over football.
Nevertheless, it is still debatable whether 14ymedio will become a popular news outlet within the Caribbean state. A major challenge for the success of this media entity will be Cuba’s problematic internet access, even in 2014. Over the years, the Cuban government has relaxed its control over the internet. Moreover, the state telecom monopoly Etecsa attempted to provide Cubans with internet access via their mobile devices, but this experiment failed. It seems that, after attempting to email their friends and relatives, Cuban citizens swamped the country’s communications capabilities.
So, even though three million of the country’s 11 million citizens are between the ages of 15 and 34 (according to the Cuban Office of Statistics and a 2011 census), what would normally be considered an internet-savvy demographic, there’s a real deficiency in digital audience.
There is still debate regarding who is to blame for Cuba’s limited presence in the virtual world. A May 18 article by the Associated Press summarizes the situation well, “Cuba’s government blames the technological problems on a U.S. embargo that prevents most American businesses from selling products to the Caribbean country. Critics of the government say it deliberately strangles the Internet to halt the spread of dissent.” For the time being, it seems that Cubans will have to continue visiting cybercafés, hotels, or academic centers if they want to go online.
An interesting development occurred last year when Venezuela constructed an underwater internet cable to connect the South American nation with Cuba. The goal was to improve internet access in the Caribbean state. The cable went live in January 2013 but so far it is unclear whether the country’s general population has benefited from the new internet capabilities.
This situation will affect the extent to which Sanchez’s 14ymedio newspaper will actually reach Cuban citizens and not just the rest of the world.
Finally, there is also the concern that the Cuban government may attempt to block the operation of 14ymedio. Sánchez herself has stated that members of her team received “warning calls from state security”. Though I cannot independently verify such threats, it is conceivable that Havana would not be fond of the idea of having an independent press for the first time in fifty years. Alarmingly, just hours after 14ymedio.com went live, the site was hacked and readers were directed to a different page that had anti-Sánchez commentaries. At the time of this writing, 14ymedio’s website is back to normal.
Thus 14ymedio is an experiment on many levels. The news outlet will certainly test how far the Cuban government is willing to tolerate a dissenting press. Also, Sánchez and her team will have the challenge of making their news site popular not only abroad but also at home.