HAVANA – Cuba’s best-known blogger said she will start publishing a general-interest newspaper online today in a move that will test both the government’s openness to free expression and the dissident’s ability to build a following inside her country.
Yoani Sanchez and her husband Reinaldo Escobar said they have been working for months with a staff of nine and contributors from around the island to produce a regularly updated website and a weekly PDF of a newspaper dedicated to providing Cubans with essential information – rather than attacking the government. The PDF version can easily be distributed by memory stick, one of the main ways Cubans share documents and information.
Escobar, who will be the editor-in-chief, told The Associated Press the paper will not have a print version and while it does not have an official license to operate, the staff will seek to avoid legal trouble by avoiding any aspect of distribution beyond publishing online. Cuban law contains a number of prohibitions against the distribution of mass media to undermine values including “social order, international solidarity or the socialist state.” In addition, newspaper publishing is not on a list of approved private businesses, so there is no way for Sanchez and Escobar to get a license to operate and hire staff.
The government has made no official comment on Sanchez’s plans, although it considers all dissidents to be mercenaries paid by Washington to stir up trouble.
Sanchez has gained global renown and a string of foreign awards for her blog “Generation Y,” which offers scathing criticism of Cuba’s communist government. She has more than 600,000 followers on Twitter, but she is far less well-known inside Cuba, where Internet access is expensive and unavailable in virtually all homes and few businesses.
The paper will be called “14ymedio,” a play on the year of the paper’s founding and the Spanish word for media. Sanchez described it on her blog she hopes the publication “will help and accompany the necessary change that will take place in our country ... a space to tell Cuba’s story from inside Cuba.”
While columnists will be free to express dissident opinions, and Sanchez’s blog will be incorporated into the new publication, much of the paper will be made up of the stuff of ordinary news sites, including a cooking section and entertainment listings and reviews, Escobar said.
News stories will avoid charged terms like “regime” or “dictatorship,” referring to the government as simply “the government,” and President Raul Castro as “head of state” or “President Gen. Raul Castro,” he said.
Escobar said “14ymedio” will probably anger government opponents by publishing listings of events in state-run venues. The paper will apply for accreditation to cover government news conferences and other events, but doesn’t expect to get it, he said.
“We want to produce a newspaper that doesn’t aim to be anti-Castro, a newspaper that’s committed to the truth, to Cubans’ everyday reality,” he said.
Some of the paper’s planned features will be politically pointed, however. Escobar said the paper plans to create an unofficial consumer price index by regularly checking and publishing the cost of basic foods and other daily necessities.
“If the reality we reflect seems uncomfortable, that’s not us, that’s reality,” he said.
Dissidents already produce a handful of news sites from inside Cuba, and the Roman Catholic Church prints two major magazines. But none are seen as true competition for Cuba’s three widely distributed state-run newspapers or its official television or radio stations.
The government once blocked the website for Sanchez’s blog, but amid a series of economic reforms it has taken a softer line against many of its detractors in recent years, freeing dozens of dissidents serving long jail terms and allowing government opponents to travel outside the country along with other Cubans by eliminating the need for a special travel permit.
“The Cuban government is trying to show greater openness to the world and so Yoani’s independent online paper comes at an important point,” said Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, a non-partisan foreign policy think tank.
While some Cuban dissidents welcome the new paper, others say an online publication has little chance of gaining traction inside Cuba.
“This will work for readers outside Cuba, but very few inside the country. That’s what would really be hard,” said Martha Beatriz Roque, who was jailed in 2003 and now heads the Network of Cuban Community Communicators, a group of anti-government citizen journalists.
Escobar said 14ymedio is being funded by independent investors, both Cubans and foreigners, although he declined to reveal their identities, or the names of his staff, until the paper begins publishing. He said the paper has enough funding for a year, but will need to bring in revenue, perhaps by offering journalism courses, paid subscriptions or, eventually, classified advertising. He declined to discuss details of the paper’s budget but said funding will include payments contributors. That could run afoul of Cuban laws requiring licenses for private enterprise, but Escobar expressed a general sense of confidence that the government had no appetite for a crackdown on the paper.
Escobar said he and his staff were less interested in building a big readership quickly than establishing a long-term presence in a country where change seems inevitable.
“We don’t want to wait for conditions to be ripe before we publish,” Escobar said. “When conditions are set, we want to be there already. When people wake up, when people have internet access in their homes, we want them to say, “’Let me see these people someone was talking to me about,’ and press ‘14ymedio.’”
Several Cubans told the AP that they were unlikely to read the new newspaper because of the lack of home Internet and the relatively high cost of $4.50 an hour to access the Web from government Internet centers or hotels with WiFi.
“I don’t have a lot of opportunity to get online. It’s really expensive, and for the most part I use it to catch up with my friends and family overseas,” said Andres Roman, a 33-year-old computer technician. “I don’t think I’m going to use it on Yoani.”
Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez and Anne-Marie Garcia contributed to this report.
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein