HAVANA TIMES — For the first time in half a century, Cubans will be able to legally watch the broadcasts of a foreign television network in their homes. On Sunday, Telesur began real time broadcasts on the island, whereas previously only a small selection of pre-recorded programs from that network was shown.
The Cuban government has maintained a strict control of the media, particularly television. Not even Washington, with all its technological potential, has managed to get its TV waves to reach the island, despite spending tens of millions of dollars with that aim.
However nothing in Cuba is what it seems and the truth is that such control isn’t so strict either. Thousands of clandestine satellite dishes and hundreds of legal video banks supply Cubans with the latest movies, TV shows and sports programs.
To catch up in this programming competition, Cuban TV multiplied its number of channels and began the massive pirating of documentaries, series and films from the United States, a country that can make no claims against these actions due to its strained relations with Cuba.
Thanks to the embargo
Generally, Cuban TV was exceedingly politicized and boring, but in recent years efforts have been made to counter the presence of satellite dishes and video banks. The number of channels went from two to five and their schedules were expanded to the point that there’s now 24-hour programming.
Movies and cartoons from the US have always been seen here because the economic embargo exonerates Cuba from paying royalties, a small benefit that is now being fully exploited with the “pirating” of movies, series, sports programs and documentaries.
The Discovery Channel supplies Cuban channels with documentaries, while Disney provides cartoons for children. Meanwhile HBO and other channels provide films and series like Dexter, Revenge, Criminal Minds, The Mentalist and others.
In terms of viewer preference, US programs are surpassed only by Brazilian soap operas, which are still shown during prime time TV hours. Cubans name their children after the characters and new meaning are given to words because of these shows. Indeed, private restaurants are called “paladares” thanks to one Brazilian telenovela.
Satellite dishes are smuggled into the country from Miami, entering the country after generous sums are paid to customs officials for looking the other way. Presently there are thousands of these devices across the country – hidden in lofts, concealed in plastic water tanks, etc.
Their influence has multiplied because many of their owners have created cable networks by linking up with the TVs of their neighbors. In this way, the signals from a satellite antenna can reach homes in a several block area around it, with the monthly cost of the service not exceeding $10 USD per month for each household.
These antennas transmit US programming that includes several Spanish channels, some from Miami, where the Cuban issue is always present. The favorite shows on the island are telenovelas, sporting events, news and comedy programs.
Virtually the only channel from the United States that cannot be seen today is TV Marti, paradoxically designed by Washington to reach Cuban viewers. Since it began broadcasting, electronic barriers have prevented its signal from reaching the island.
The banking system
Initially, “banks” were places where one could rent videos. First these were in the Beta-max format, later VHS, and then as DVDs. Now you can go with a hard drive and have it loaded up with movies, cartoons and series.
On one webpage Rosa offers a season of any series for only $1 USD, while Miguelito will sell each episode for only eight cents. Rafael is a bit more expensive, but he’ll come to your house, while Abelito offers HD films for the equivalent of only forty cents.
Each of these banks has hundreds of movies and episodes of series. Most of these have been downloaded from the Internet by relatives in Miami or by people in Cuba who work for businesses, hotels or universities, etc. that have broadband connections to the Internet.
Interestingly, all of this is so legal that even pirated movies are sold in doorways without anyone asking about their origins. Undoubtedly, despite the restrictions, Cubans are very up to date with regard to television.
(*) See Fernando Ravsberg’s blog (in Spanish).