Tonight Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism will host the 71st annual Maria Moors Cabot Prize for outstanding reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean. New York Times veteran Anthony DePalma, O Globo columnist Merval Pereira and Christopher Hawley, Latin America correspondent for USA Today and The Arizona Republic will be present to collect their awards, which include a $5,000 honorarium. However Cuban blogger and dissident Yoani Sánchez, who was awarded a special mention from the awards committee won’t be there. Sánchez confirmed on Monday that Cuban authorities denied her request to travel to New York to accept the prize.
The Generación Y author has won international accolades for the blog she founded in 2007. In 2008 she won Spain’s prestigious Ortega y Gasset prize for digital journalism; later that year Time distinguished her as one of the year’s 100 most influential people. Her blog is translated into 15 languages and receives over 1 million visitors per month.
She is the first blogger to receive recognition from the Cabot Prize Board, which describes her writing as “…a pitch-perfect mix of personal observation and tough analysis which conveys better than anybody else what daily life ― with all its frustrations and hopes ― is like for Cubans living their lives on the island today.”
Ms. Sánchez describes her frustration at not being allowed to leave Cuba to accept the award more eloquently than anyone else could:
“All these difficulties to get permission to leave evoke for me the words of …Carlos Aldana. In an interview in 1991 for the Spanish magazine Cambio 16, the former number three in power in Cuba said: ‘This year Cubans will be able to travel abroad freely.’ Only it didn’t specify if we were going to do it on the wings of our imaginations and if it would be in a year containing twelve months or nearly two decades.”
Generación Y’s appeal is not just that it provides a portal in to the daily lives of Cubans, but it’s also beautifully written. Yoani’s prose lends a fresh and articulate voice in describing the daily lives, hopes and aspirations of a generation that has grown up with—but outside of—the icons of the revolution. And she does so without the rancor or vitriol that so often obscures the human element of Cuba today.
Last month, in response to the seemingly arbitrary arrests of two musicians in Havana, whom supporters described as “vital organs of the nation,” Sánchez described her country as:
“…a society admitted into intensive care with transplanted parts and a dialysis machine connected to the area where citizenship should be working. We live on an Island where they excise and amputate because a few diagnose that a member has gangrene when in reality it is, simply, different.”
Her writing is informed as much by her background as a philologist (which I recently learned is the “study of language as it relates to literature”) as it is by a frustrated citizen. I met Yoani in her Havana apartment in last March. I was struck by her calm—even as she unplugged her phone to avoid having our conversation bugged. She spoke with resolve and passion about upcoming projects, ideas and making the most out of the small freedoms Cubans are allowed. Comparing the regime to a fence separating Cubans from the rest of the world, she described blogging as a way to dig under the fence.
Sánchez has inspired a generation of writers in Cuba to follow in her footsteps. Last month she and fellow independent journalists organized Cuba’s first awards for bloggers, calling the event Una Isla Virtual. The voting committee received nominations for 187 blogs and convened 66 bloggers for the September 9 ceremony—an impressive figure considering Cuba has the lowest rate of Internet connectivity in the hemisphere (around 12 percent).The winner, Claudia Cadelo, received one of the two laptops Sánchez was awarded for the Ortega y Gasset prize.
It is ironic and yet fitting that Ms. Sánchez is being honored alongside another (former) dissident journalist. Merval Pereira of O Globo began his career during Brazil’s dictatorship (1964-1985). The selection committee at Columbia noted that his own reporting on fractures within the ruling generals “…accelerated the country’s return to democracy.”
Sánchez makes no claims that her post will undo 50-plus years of dictatorship in her country. However, past and current Cabot Award winners (among them Mexican journalist Elena Poniatowska, who chronicled the 1968 massacre at Tlatelolco, current Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes who reported on his country’s civil war and Argentine journalist and La Nación editor Jacobo Timmerman, who was imprisoned and tortured after reporting on abuses under his country’s military dictatorship) demonstrate the potential power of the pen—or, laptop. Today, however, the most poignant reminder of the power of words, is that Yoani’s prose and passion have broken through the regime’s “fence” and touched those beyond it, even if she herself cannot leave the island to attend tonight’s event.