In mid-March, Cuban magazine El Estornudo (The Sneeze) celebrated its second year of existence — but also its first month of being blocked on the island. With this, El Estornudo joins the ranks of other independent digital publications that have been censored in Cuba in the past three years: 14ymedio, Diario de Cuba, CiberCuba, Café Fuerte, Cubanet y Cubaencuentro and international journalism sites like FNPI and Nieman.
The Cuban constitution recognizes freedom of the press but expressly prohibits private ownership of the media. This makes all independent outlets illegal, even though none have declared themselves as privately owned and have emerged from associations of journalists with equal levels of decision. El Estornudo's team is scattered throughout Cuba, Mexico and Spain. They have a board that makes some decisions, but seek to work as a horizontal team.
Carlos Manuel Álvarez is the magazine’s editorial director. Based in Mexico, he recently visited Buenos Aires to present his book "La Tribu, Retratos de Cuba" – stories of Cubans during the period 2014-2016 – when the blockade occurred.
SembraMedia: How did you find out the magazine had been blocked in the island?
Álvarez: Some friends and contributors working in the magazine wanted to enter the site from Havana and couldn't. They didn't worry much, because they thought it was an internet connection problem. But after two or three days, the situation persisted. Then I started receiving messages from readers living in Cuba and we finally realized we had been blocked. We stopped looking for other reasons; the magazine’s profile is susceptible to being blocked because of the journalism we do.
Independent media are prohibited. Wasn’t this going to happen sooner or later?
Sure, independent media are not allowed to exist in the first place. But the state has a level of tolerance or resignation; otherwise, every journalist would be in prison and every website would be blocked in advance. The decision to censor, however, is reserved for the organizations they consider to have a more critical angle than they are willing to allow. There are outlets that produce very good journalism but do not get involved in political issues because it’s not in their editorial line, such as fashion or culture magazines.
Creating a media organization in Cuba is taking a risk. How do you deal with that?
Actually, laws in Cuba are not fully enforced. If you start a news project, they will not necessarily stop you. They will let you exist in precarious conditions, but in general won't stop you just because. Although the law is right there, they will only enforce it only when they think it's necessary, as they did in 2016 after the hurricane in eastern Cuba. The team of Periodismo de Barrio and a contributor to El Estornudo were detained and spent three days in a dungeon. There is a point where you are stripped of your rights; if they want to enforce the law with all their power, they will.
Do you think El Estornudo was blocked because of its content?
The magazine publishes longform and opinion pieces. I don't think there was a particular text that triggered the blockade, I think it's a two-year accumulation of texts of a different kind that can be very confrontational toward the political situation in the island. We speak openly of any leader — Fidel or Raul Castro — anyone. They are not in the magazine all the time, but if they have to be for some reason, we don't avoid the situation.
This is an exercise of speculation and trying to think like a censor. I'm not sure when they make the actual decision to block a site because they can be very arbitrary. There are publications that have historically been much more aggressive toward the Cuban government and remain unblocked.
So you didn't see the blockade coming?
In a way I did, yes; there was a chance of that happening. The magazine has already shown it is solid and stable. Journalism students, recent graduates and young people contribute or want to contribute to El Estornudo, and I’m sure that bothers them a lot.
How do you think the blockade affects other independent media?
Every independent outlet in Cuba should be aware that at some point they can also be censored for a reason they probably don't know. This has happened before and will continue to happen. I'd like things to be different, but that's how things are on the island and there's no guarantee of anything.
How was the news of the blockade spread?
I didn't talk to anyone or make any moves until the editorial came out. El Estornudo has a number of Cuba-based journalists who follow us. We also have contacts and alliances with foreign media and as soon as the piece came out, they all republished it.
What was the impact of other media republishing the editorial?
It was comforting to know that the repercussion of what happened to us is a reflection of the quality of the work that we do. It is comforting from a professional point of view and in terms of our safety and stability. The censors — that is, the states — are more aware of media organizations when they are more exposed; this is not only a Cuban phenomenon, it happens everywhere. In contrast, publications that nobody knows will receive less attention. When this happens to journalists and independent media, regardless of their editorial line, it’s good to have a clear position against censorship.
How many readers does El Estornudo have in Cuba?
In January, we had 15,000 to 20,000 visits from Cuba. But visits are misleading because many are connected from the same IP address (which means that there could be several readers on the same computer). Readers inside Cuba interest me because they have limited hours of connection. If they choose to read El Estornudo, it is for a reason; probably because we provide information that cannot be found in the state media. That is why the Cuban reader living on the island puts us in the battle between journalism and state propaganda. That battle interests me.
Why does it interest you, as a journalist?
It's our basic duty. Even if it's a small battle or it’s lost in advance, it should be the reason of existence of all these media organizations. The goal of creating these publications is, to a greater or lesser extent, to break the monolith of the state press.
Do you have more readers inside or outside the island?
Outside. There is a very large community outside Cuba. But we think it's very good that Cuba was the country with the most visits after the United States. Beyond quantity, I’d like Cubans in Cuba to be the primary audience — be it five, 15 or 2,000 — because the magazine is intended for them.
How does censorship impact your audience, business model and team?
Any user who wants to find information in Cuba has a Ph.D. in searching for shortcuts on the web and being able to read blocked sites. Anyone who really wants to read El Estornudo will be able to do it. Despite this, we have to look for distribution alternatives, whether it’s sending subscriptions by mail or designing a newsletter.
What other consequences could the blockage have?
The blockage is a stain that may scare sources off. It's not the same to introduce yourself as a journalist working for an alternative media organization than working for an official one. There is more caution and looking for a source is double the work. There is also a barrier when the outlet is blocked because many people will think the site was blocked for a reason. All this can make the relationship with sources, journalists or contributors more difficult or paranoid.
Is there a chance the state will unblock it?
That hasn't happened with any of the sites that I know of and are already blocked*. We've also made it clear that we are not going to do anything to get unblocked. The editorial line of the magazine will remain the same. We are not going to become more incendiary, nor are we going to become an obedient organization that seems to have learned the lesson.
Do you think there's a link between your news book and the blockade?
I do not think there is a relationship, but I do think that the magazine became more relevant in Cuba when it became more relevant outside the island. For example, El Estornudo's stories often appear on Univision, BBC Mundo and Latin American and European publications. The magazine has begun to integrate itself into the Latin American and world media ecosystem and has begun to gain recognition. We won the 2017 Gabriel García Márquez award in the text category and the 2018 class of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University considered us for the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism. As this situation evolves, the state feels that things are getting out of control.
How can the international journalism community help El Estornudo?
With training and donations, but this has already happened in some way. We don't really want people to help El Estornudo because it's a blocked page in Cuba, but because it offers quality journalism, it is a professional outlet, it produces good stories and its team deserves to have the opportunity to grow professionally. I don't want El Estornudo to grow because it's a victim of censorship, but because of what it is on its own.
*La Joven Cuba was blocked in 2012 and unblocked in 2013.
This article was originally published on SembraMedia and was edited and republished on IJNet with permission.
Main image: Carlos Manuel Álvarez, taken by Laura Grosskopf. Second photo: María Eugenia Álvarez, board coordinator at SembraMedia, interviews El Estornudo's editorial director, Carlos Manuel Álvarez. Photograph by Laura Grosskopf.