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Online newspaper 14ymedio marks 10 years defying Cuba's 'allergy' to a free press

Brave Blogger: Yoani Sanchez, then an internationally famous Cuban dissident blogger, speaks at the Freedom Tower of Miami Dade College in downtown Miami on April 1, 2013, a year before she, her husband and colleagues started the independent Cuban online newspaper 14ymedio.
Lynne Sladky
Brave Blogger: Yoani Sanchez, then an internationally famous Cuban dissident blogger, speaks at the Freedom Tower of Miami Dade College in downtown Miami on April 1, 2013, a year before she, her husband and colleagues started the independent Cuban online newspaper 14ymedio.

In 2013, Yoani Sánchez was already an international celebrity thanks Generación Y, her candid and critical blog about life under Cuba’s communist regime. Time Magazine had included her on its list of the world's 100 most influential people. When she visited Miami that year, she was enthusiastically hailed at venues like the downtown Freedom Tower as a fresher, more hopeful face of Cuban dissent.

But Sánchez had an even bolder second act up her sleeve.

“During that visit to Miami I began to feel what was missing in Cuba was a real and professional independent daily journalism outlet” to underpin that nonconformity, Sánchez told WLRN from Havana.

So she, her husband Reinaldo Escobar and colleagues inside and outside Cuba created the online newspaper 14ymedio. The name is a combination of the Spanish word for "media," the 14th floor apartment in Havana where it was first produced and the "Y" in Sánchez's popular blog.

14ymedio last month marked its 10th anniversary — no easy feat in a heavily speech-restricted country like Cuba.

READ MORE: Yoani Sanchez on Cuba-US relations, her future and life after the Castro brothers

“The regime’s allergy to anything that looks like a free press in Cuba was our first obstacle,” Sánchez says.

“We experienced everything from arbitrary cuts to our internet service — to arbitrary arrests,” including that of her husband in 2015. (He was later released.)

Cubans on the island themselves "were wary of us at first," Sánchez recalls, "because they didn't know what to make of us."

But 14ymedio quickly built readership thanks in no small part to one big event: then President Obama’s normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba in 2014.

“That put the eyes of the world on Cuba,” Sánchez says. “And in turn — on the work 14ymedio was doing.”

More Cubans inside Cuba turned their eyes to that work, too — especially as the newspaper began breaking important stories like the invasion of giant, disease-carrying African snails in Cuba that critics said the regime had been trying to keep under wraps. (Cuban officials denied that.) Or the government’s seemingly secretive opening of so-called “dollar stores” — an admission of the collapsed economy’s desperate need for hard currency.

Events like the 2021 anti-government protests may catch everyone by surprise, but Cubans know we are here to help them make sense of it.
Yoani Sánchez

“The most important effect for us was that people inside Cuba started sending us stories they were seeing day to day,” says Bertrand de la Grange, who co-produces 14ymedio from Madrid, Spain, where much of the daily's business operation is headquartered.

De la Grange, a Morocco native and veteran Latin America correspondent and author who worked for many years in Cuba, says he believes that 14ymedio — like the long overdue introduction of universal access to the internet itself on the island six years ago — has helped liberalize the Cuban mindset about news and information.

“People started knowing things that they didn’t know," De la Grange says. "They didn’t have to listen only to Radio Martí or media from outside Cuba anymore to know about what was going on inside Cuba. They had the feeling that they now had people inside Cuba who were telling the truth, telling real stories. And then, even the official press started responding" to what 14ymedio was reporting.

Up at 3 a.m.

And so did Cubans outside Cuba.

14ymedio is independent from the Cuban regime; but it’s also detached from the Cuban exile leadership in Miami.

That group, for example, insists there is no such thing as a private sector, or pymes, in Cuba. But 14ymedio has found that while certainly some Cuban entrepreneurs and enterprises are linked to regime or military officials, many others are not. Or, as editor Yoani Sánchez told WLRN, “many are breaking their backs to create genuine private businesses” there that help Cubans mitigate their economic suffering.

14ymedio's home page for Monday, June 10, 2024.
14ymedio's home page for Monday, June 10, 2024.

That more balanced, on-the-ground reporting is “why every day I read 14ymedio," says Cuban expat Guennady Rodriguez, host of the popular podcast 23yFlagler in Miami.

"I feel a lot of respect for them, because they’re not promoting a political agenda — they are still keeping their objectivity, and that’s something very rare in Cuba’s independent media. It’s a good service to the Cuban community in general.”

Ten years on, that service is itself a viable private enterprise: it has an estimated 600,000 readers worldwide, and 60% of its budget is covered by advertising.

More important, 14ymedio has helped make key Cuban events objectively clearer to people on both sides of the Florida Straits, from the death of Fidel Castro in 2016 to the unprecedented anti-government protests of 2021.

“That upheaval caught everyone by surprise,” says 14ymedio's Sánchez. “But Cubans knew we were here to help them make sense of it.”

Sánchez points out something else that’s made 14ymedio’s work harder is losing journalists to the massive exodus of Cubans off the island in recent years. Or their expulsions. Last week, for example, the Cuban regime released independent journalist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca from prison, but exiled him to Miami. Although Valle Roca was not a direct contributor to 14ymedio, his exit is indicative of what independent journalism faces in Cuba.

Still, as for 14ymedio, Sánchez insists, “We’re not going anywhere. I mean, I don't have to get up at 3 a.m. every morning to deal with the internet situation as we did when we started out," she adds, laughing. "But I feel we still have a ways to go before we achieve the level of journalism we're capable of here.

"This is a serious commitment.”

One its readers hope will last at least another 10 years.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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