Potboilers and the party line
By Richard Lapper
Published: August 21 2008 17:23 | Last updated: August 21 2008 17:23
For Jordania Yero, Cuban television provides essential distraction from
the austerity of the bleak 1960s housing estate where she lives with her
family in Santiago, Cuba's second city. Yero, a 31-year-old information
technician, typically watches between three and four hours a day, avidly
following everything from cartoons and documentaries to dancing
competitions and game shows. Above all, though, she is a fan of the
gritty home-grown and imported soap operas shown by Cuba's
state-controlled TV networks.
Latin American popular drama may have a reputation for romanticism acted
out badly in a middle-class world way beyond the reach of most viewers.
But that kind of content finds no place on Cuba's five state-run
channels. Instead Cubans such as Yero are offered tough, down-to-earth
and surprisingly honest shows that deal with everyday issues.
The stage for these performances is more likely to be a crumbling Havana
apartment than the idealised world favoured by Mexican or Colombian
producers. "I like them because you learn so much about how life is
lived. How people develop little tricks to get by," says Yero.
Like many Cubans, she is also a big fan of hugely popular Brazilian soap
operas such as Passionate Women, a current favourite. These may have
more idealised settings than their Cuban equivalents but have also
tended to trace more realistic themes, such as migration, gender
violence, alcoholism and prostitution. "Brazil is everybody's great
hope. Everybody in Cuba is interested," she says.
And increasingly Cuban directors are pursuing more adventurous themes.
One current favourite, Powder in the Wind, follows the relationships of
a man diagnosed with HIV. Lesbianism is a theme of The Other Side of the
Moon. On the surface that might seem to indicate that a broader
liberalisation of Cuban society is gathering pace in the wake of the
hospitalisation two years ago (and subsequent retirement) of Fidel
Castro, the country's legendary leader.
Sexuality, after all, was the subject 18 months ago of the most
successful protest in Cuba since the 1959 revolution, when intellectuals
and artists lobbied on the internet to force from the airwaves Luis
Pavón Tamayo. As cultural supremo in the early 1970s, Pavón Tamayo had
been notorious for enforcing rigid censorship rules and forcing dozens
of gay people into obscurity or exile. His brief appearance as a guest
on a cultural programme on TV had alarmed his now rehabilitated victims.
There have been some other signs of greater openness, too. This year,
for example, Cuba launched a fifth terrestrial television station,
Multivisión, which surprisingly has broadcast imported critically
acclaimed US dramas, such as Grey's Anatomy and The Sopranos,
programming that seems to go down well with Yero and her neighbours. But
anyone under the illusion that Cuba is about to experience its own kind
of glasnost should take a look at news programming. There the grip of
the Communist party officials responsible for ideological orientation is
as firm as ever. Take Round Table, a prime-time news discussion show
broadcast for 1½ hours every day, which won something of a reputation
for innovation when first shown at the beginning of this decade.
Each evening guests – usually local journalists or academics – discuss
themes of the day. There are small, relatively parochial topics on some
nights: Cuba's new allotment gardening culture, for example. And there
are big ones: the immigration crisis in the capitalist world or, ahead
of this month's Olympic Games, the "robbery" of Cuban athletes by the US
or Spain. But the discussions are invariably narrow.
No one would dare to suggest that socialist Cuba has its own emigration
problem, in the form of 20,000 Cubans who wait patiently for US visas
each year or risk their lives aboard rickety rafts to cross the Florida
Straits illegally. Mention the material frustrations and ambitions that
lie behind the regular defections of Cuba's successful athletes,
musicians and dancers, and you would stand to find yourself in trouble.
The show's anchors always have a handy quotation from a recent speech by
Raúl Castro or one of "Comrade Fidel Castro's" recent newspaper columns
to reinforce the official message. And just in case anyone doesn't quite
pick it up, the official line comes out loud and clear on Cubavisión's
main evening news – shown at 8pm. The show is almost a parody of the
worst kind of Soviet-era official speak.
Other than news about Hugo Chávez, the Cuban party's current hero, and
his Latin American acolytes, or US atrocities at Guantánamo, news from
the rest of the world is invariably filtered out, leaving the most
minuscule activities of the Castros or workaday preparations for party
events to receive pride of place. The opening of a press room for
international journalists for a recent annual commemoration of the
beginning of the Cuban revolution featured prominently on the news list
one day last month, for example. And although Fidel Castro may pretend
that he has retired from public life, the official media dedicate plenty
of time to his latest utterances on any subject.
"The Reflections of Comrade Fidel: The Two Koreas, Part Two," boomed the
news reader, a moustachioed man in his 50s, the other day, before
woodenly reciting extracts.
Some of her neighbours occasionally vent their frustration, but Yero
takes it calmly in her stride. Her main objection is that Round Table is
shown so early, and on three channels simultaneously. "People criticise
a lot the fact that it is broadcast at 6.30, just when the kids get back
from school," she says. "These are not programmes for children."
This article is part of a series on TV around the world. For earlier
pieces, visit www.ft.com/arts/tv