Cuba is a very special place to me. I visited the country two years ago this week as part of an immersion for graduate school. As most visitors will probably tell you, it is an amazing place full of spirited and warm people such as Yoani Sánchez, a courageous Cuban who is fast becoming one of the most famous voices of the country through her simple online journal about everyday life in Cuba under the Castro regime. I also thought about Sánchez and my trip as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs honored Yoani Sánchez last week as its 2014 Gus Hart Visiting Fellow, an award bestowed on an emerging Latin American leader who has contributed to the advancement of society. In case you haven’t heard of her, I wanted to briefly share her amazing story.

As an Independent Journalist, Yoani Sánchez Takes Risks

Throughout our blog posts, we at Hillard Heintze comment at times on our work as investigators who are adept at uncovering needles-in-a-haystack through public records research, finding concerning issues through news stories or searching social media platforms for a potential reputational or behavioral threat. But what if independent journalism didn’t exist here and the news and media stories were one-sided? What if we didn’t have access to public records? What if only a small percentage of us even had access to the Internet – which the government also censored and controlled, limiting its output? We certainly wouldn’t have the access to find information to provide our clients with insight. This all had me thinking even more so about Yoani Sánchez – brave and daring, and willing to risk everything to seek and provide information and honest insight to fellow Cubans and the world.

Internet Access is Censored and Controlled in Cuba

What you may not know is that Cuba has basically shut itself out from the Internet. It is extremely difficult or nearly impossible for Cubans to gain access to the Internet, let alone post to a blog. According to Internet watchdog Freedom House – an international organization that acts as a catalyst for freedom through a combination of analysis, advocacy and action – only five percent of Cubans had access to the Internet in 2011, with only a slight jump to 15 percent in 2012. Those who do have access typically do so through only a government-controlled intranet and not the World Wide Web. They have limited access to anything other than email, and in some cases they are able to obtain wider access but only by paying a third of their monthly salary for one hour of usage with exceptionally slow speed.

A Brave New Blog – Followed by Awards and Accolades across the World

When Yoani Sánchez started her blog “Generación Y” in 2007, she dressed as a tourist and pretended to speak only German so she could sneak into hotel Internet cafes catering to tourists, as Cubans were barred from tourist hotels at the time. By the following year, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and in 2011 she received the International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. Department of State. Yoani Sánchez’s posts to the world have survived through creative thinking and the help of friends and strangers alike. In 2008, Cuba’s “cyber response brigade” blocked access to her blog in Cuba. But she persevered and today friends overseas post Sánchez’s entries online and her writing is disseminated across Cuba through flash drives. She also uses her cell phone to tweet to more than 600,000 people who follow her on Twitter at @YoaniSánchez. She also recently started an online news site “14ymedio.”

A Cup of Cuban Coffee

Regardless of one’s politics of Cuba-U.S. relations, as an investigator I appreciate Yoani Sánchez’s spirit and curiosity. As the Chicago Council celebrated her fierceness and doggedness last week, I only hope that one day soon I can go back and see her work first-hand in a less repressed Cuba – one where independent journalism, freedom of expression and unfettered access to the World Wide Web truly exists. Who knows, maybe I could even try to track her down and meet her in person for a cup of Cuban coffee.