Cuba: Waiting for Cable TV / Ivan Garcia

Cuba-viendo-telenovelas-coreanas-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 21 August 2015 — When you tell Felicia, aged 76, a housewife, that with that  “strange and complicated gadget” which you operate with your fingertips she can make an audiovisual connection with her son who lives in Miami, she shakes her head as if to say you are pulling my leg.

Tablets, laptops and smartphones, seem to her like things from science fiction. She is convinced that her rough fingers can destroy those little toys with their flat screens.

Felicia prefers to sit down on the sofa in her house and watch five hours of Brazilian, Turkish and South Korean soaps or costume dramas produced in the States.

Right now, she is waiting anxiously for the local messenger who is going to let her rent various episodes of Game of Thrones. The weekly packet is an audiovisual collection of films, serials and foreign soaps downloaded by private entrepreneurs and then marketed; it’s a primitive local leisure industry.

“Two years ago, a neighbour who had an antenna, let me use the signal for 8 CUC a month, with a listing of programmes from Miami and comedy items from Spain. But since the police shut down her business, I rent videos or the “weekly packet.” It’s because Cuban TV is so bad that people have no option but to spend money on other alternatives,” Felicia explains.

The reports in the national and foreign press emphasis the increase in internet services in the island, but they say little about any opening up of cable TV.

In a survey of 15 people, of both sexes and aged between 14 and 76, all of them approve of improved access to the internet, but are waiting for some news about an opening-up of prepay television channels.

Yudelis, aged 16, would like to have a “bundle” of available channels to see documentaries like discovery Channel, different news analysis in CNN or HBO serials.

Eusebio, 27, prefers a cable channel so he can watch live broadcasts of NBA and MLB games and international Tennis Opens. “Cuban television is making an effort on its sports channel, but it falls short. Many events are delayed. And when they transmit them, you already know the result.”

There are huge fanatics of the channels from Florida. Ileana, 34, obsessively consumes Caso Cerrado or Belleza Latina. “If they permitted cable TV you could choose your favourite programmes”.

Sergio, 41, an economist, thinks that opening up a television signal would be a really good deal for the government. “It could be more profitable than the internet. Remember that in Cuba it’s only a minority that has a computer or smartphone, but almost everybody has a television.”

Carlos, 59, a sociologist, thinks that the political prejudices of the military autocrats count for more than economic profit. “In cable TV there are poor quality programmes which add nothing to general culture. But every person is able to make their individual decision as to preferences and what to do with their free time. An opening like this would short-circuit the State’s monopoly on information. The problem for the government is not that people would be able to see recorded crap, but that they would know, for example, about Antonio Castro’s vacations in Greece and Turkey.”

In President Obama’s 17th December 2014 roadmap to empower the Cuban people, there was no mention of the intention to market the US prepay Spanish TV service.

And this isn’t mentioned either in Raúl Castro’s timid economic reforms. The olive green government has only committed itself to digitise TV by 2021.

If you are interested in the Florida channels, you have to pay the equivalent of $10 a month to shady people who market the service, or rent the “weekly packet.” There’s no choice.

Iván García

Photo: Two Cubans watching a South Korean soap in their house. Taken by Panamericana.

Note: After more than three decades of the Brazilian reign, South Korean soaps have gained ground with the Cuban public. The boom in “doramas” (Asian dramas) on the island exploded after the successful transmission of The Queen of the Wives. That was followed by My Beautiful Woman, You are Beautiful, Unlimited Dreams and Secret Garden, but some 30 or so are going round from hand to hand, nearly all of them from Miami, where the “doramas” are very popular with the Cubans and Latinos living in Florida.

On a visit to the island, the actor and singer Yoon Sang Hyun, known in Cuba for his interpretation of the butler Seo in the My Beautiful Woman soap, said that the success of the South Korean series was down to their showing real life personal relations, and including some comedy, romance and drama, but without over-dramatising it.

The South Korean soaps follow a similar model to the Brazilian, Mexican, Colombian and Venezuelan TV dramas, and show the Cubans an unknown country, although for a while they have been selling Made in South Korea appliances (Samsung is the best-known brand). Seoul and Havana have had no diplomatic relations since 1959 due to the historic political and ideological alliance between the Castro regime and the Kims in Pyongyang. According to the Yonhap agency, “Cuba and South Korea can normalise their diplomatic relations in the very near future.”

Lately, the Cubans have also latched onto the Turkish soaps, although the Brazilian ones remain the favourites. Cuba is a precursor country of the genre: it was a Cuban, Félix B. Caignet (1892-1976), author of the famous radio serial The Right to be Born, in the ’40’s, who fixed the srructure later adopted by television for its melodramas (Tania Qunitero).

Translated by GH