Dissident's new digital newspaper blocked in Cuba

Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez launched a new online newspaper Wednesday, with hopes of making it Cuba's first independent news outlet in 50 years, but it was promptly blocked inside the communist-ruled island.

People in Cuba who tried to connect to Sanchez's "14ymedio" site were redirected to another page, Yoanislandia.com, filled with attacks on the prize-winning writer and pieces by pro-government bloggers.

"This is a site of people sick of Yoani Sanchez presenting herself as the Mother Teresa of Cuban dissidents," the replacement site said in its "about us" tab.

Sanchez launched her new site at 8:05 am (1205 GMT), promising to offer Cubans "a complete spectrum of news, opinion pieces and information" about life on the island.

But by 11 am (1500 GMT) it had been blocked inside Cuba, where the state has controlled all media since the early days of the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.

"I have been so nervous lately, I have bitten my nails down to the quick... Thanks for the words of support and the criticism that will help make us better," Sanchez wrote on Twitter.

"Bad strategy from the Cuban government blocking our site. There is nothing more attractive than forbidden fruit."

- Moral support from famous -

Noted figures from around the world, including Nobel prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa and Polish Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa, urged the government to "respect the right" of the newspaper to exist, in a letter posted on the site.

Sanchez assembled a newsroom of 11 journalists, including herself, in Havana to produce the news site. Her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, is editor-in-chief.

14ymedio was seen as a potential game changer in the media landscape here, since Cubans for decades have had just one official source of news -- the Havana government.

Cuba's dozens of official media outlets include Granma, the newspaper of the Communist Party; Juventud Rebelde, published by the Union of Young Communists and broadcaster Telerebelde -- all emitting a similar pro-Communist message, and rarely offering even mild criticism of the government.

The government of President Raul Castro, 82, has adopted several incremental economic reforms, while retaining control of the economy.

But its refusal to do the same on the political or free speech front bodes ill for the new venture.

Most Cubans in this nation of 11 million do not have access to the Internet. And with most earning around $20 a month, they cannot usually afford to pay for $7-10 hourly access at Internet cafes.

Sanchez has said that the newspaper would also be distributed via cellphone and email, as well as through digital memory devices like USB flash drives, DVDs and CDs.

The reporting on its first day ranged from the mundane -- tips on restoring lost luster to damaged hair -- to an article on a meeting of Catholic bishops on the island.

An analysis piece discussed the impact so far of Castro's limited economic reforms. There was also a cultural calendar.

Despite the block on Cuban users, Sanchez's site quickly boasted a feature that Cubans are unaccustomed to in official media -- lively debate between supporters and detractors of the revolution.

In its comments section, 14ymedio displayed a range of opinions posted by early readers about the importance of the new venture, and discussion about the role of communism in present-day Cuba.

One poster, under the name "Fernando," slammed the fledgling publication, saying it "financed by the CIA and the US, through its network of NGOs spread throughout the world."

The government often repeats this claim in state-run media.

But someone writing under the name "Siempre Adelante" (Always Forward), rejected Fernando's "retrograde" conspiracy theories.

"I wish there were millions of Yoanis who would disseminate the real TRUTH!!" the poster wrote.