Move over Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban government.
There’s a new player in town in the homogenous media landscape of the communist island that is already testing the limits of the government’s strict controls on the digital sphere, and VICE News spoke to its editor, Reinaldo Escobar.
The outlet is called 14ymedio, or “14-and-a-half,” and is the brainchild of the dissident blogger — and constant thorn on the side of the Castro brothers — Yoani Sánchez. 14ymedio launched on May 21, and was promptly cyber-attacked in its first day of existence.
'We believe that the opposition’s complaints are the reality. We are not writing reviews on the opposition, we are speaking about Cuba.'
Within the first three hours of its launch, visitors to 14ymedio in Cuba saw the platform redirect to a website called yoani$landia, which hosts criticism of Sánchez, such as an article by Gordiano Lupi, her former Italian translator at La Stampa, that called her money-hungry.
Visitors accessing the website from countries outside of Cuba were not redirected, but the diversion persisted for several days on Cuban web browsers. Back online and still testing the waters, 14ymedio might be the first independent news source in Cuba in the 55 years of the Castro regime.
To get a sense of what the site has planned, VICE News reached out to Escobar, editor of the site and Sánchez’s husband, for a phone interview.
“From the perspective of language and official logic, we are an opposition journal, but we ourselves do not identify as such,” Escobar said on Tuesday. “We believe that the opposition’s complaints are the reality. We are not writing reviews on the opposition, we are speaking about Cuba.”
Yohandry Fontana, a blogger, has on several occasions accused Sánchez of receiving prizes thanks to her secret support of the CIA.
So far, though, Sánchez and Escobar have not shied away from publishing potential fodder for the detractors who say they are too cozy with — or even funded by — the United States.
One of the first big pieces published by 14ymedio was an interview with US Vice President Joe Biden —posted five days after the website was launched — that focuses on US policy regarding commerce and freedom of expression in Cuba. Escobar said the interview came about as a result of an invitation from the veep that was seized by Sánchez during her April visit to the US.
The White House never offered details about the meeting, but according to Biden’s Twitter account, it centered on “the challenges of civil society & free speech in Cuba.”
Sánchez became an internationally known figure by posting vivid, scathing dispatches on daily life in modern Cuba on Generación Y, her personal blog. Her name has even been mentioned as a potential Nobel Peace Prize candidate.
But she remains a deeply controversial figure in Cuba.
Yohandry Fontana, a blogger who is typically supportive of the Cuban government, has on several occasions accused Sánchez of receiving prizes thanks to her secret support of the CIA. Fontana has never offered proof to back up these claims, but the allegation hovers over Yoani Sánchez, particularly among her skeptics.
Sánchez has previously defended herself against such accusations by describing them as a strategy of the Cuban regime to defame her character.
The name 14ymedio is a reference to Sánchez’s blog (Y) and the 14th-floor Havana apartment where her news outlet is produced. The editorial team consists of about a dozen collaborators who previously worked as bloggers on other independent platforms on the island.
14ymedio maintains a physical address and is commercially recognized in Madrid, under the name CLYS Comunicaciones 3.0. This business was registered with just over $3,000 euros in starting capital, according to a private database.
Lupi, the translator who once defended Sánchez’s back as her collaborator, is now raising doubts about her.
Escobar was unable to confirm the start-up sum, or the origin of the funds, but he did acknowledge that the project carries costs. And although the origin of the initial capital is unclear, Sánchez has obtained several international prizes and editorial contracts in recent years that remain at her disposal.
The Inter-American Press Association, for example, sponsored her 2013 international tour, after the Cuban government granted her an “exit permit” off the island.
Lupi, the translator who once defended Sánchez’s back as her collaborator, is now raising doubts about her, saying twice this month that she has been rude to him and “only cares about money.” I asked Escobar about Lupi’s motives.
“It is an unexpected reaction, you would really have to ask him,” 14ymedio’s editor said. “Everything seems to indicate that since Sánchez has become so busy with the journal, perhaps she has been unable to continue sending the articles that she had been writing for La Stampa, and maybe that bothered him, or affected him economically. This is just speculation, but I don’t have a logical explanation for it.”
A campaign spearheaded by Mario Vargas Llosa appeals to Cuba’s government to respect Sánchez’s freedom of speech.
For now, the most significant display of outside support for the digital platform is a letter posted by the website that was signed by 28 writers and journalists. This is from a campaign spearheaded by Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, which appeals to Cuba’s government to respect Sánchez’s freedom of speech.
In the letter, the signees “call upon the Cuban government to respect this platform’s right to exist and be disseminated. We ask them to not restrict our freedom of expression and the citizen’s right to information.”
14ymedio is so far running a range of stories, from a look at the local tattoo scene to enterprise-style stories such as a feature on a Havana hospital emergency room that receives victims of violent crime.
The source of the cyber-attack on the site last week remains unclear, but Sánchez was quick to denounce it, calling the hacking a “bad strategy on the part of the Cuban government to redirect our website from Cuba.”