The Obama Telenovela

Cubans seek out news from America

It was on our first morning in Havana that my friend and I discovered how obsessively Cubans have been following recent developments in American politics. Our hostess, a middle-aged bleached blonde with a hardened good cheer, served us our eggs and proceeded to engage us on the subject of the Sasha and Malia Obama dolls. It was only a few days after the inauguration and the world was still tipsy on Obamamania, but it felt odd that someone would know something so infinitesimally peculiar on a blockaded island with a handful of state newspapers and four Party-approved TV channels, all repeating the same agit-prop ad nauseam. Norma went on. “It’s great that Michelle’s mother is going to be living with them,” she said. “It’ll be good for the girls, and it shows what kind of man Obama is.”

Later that day, while walking around Vedado, in Central Havana, we were invited to join three generations dancing to reggae in their living room. One of the neighbors was there and, on hearing we were American, quickly buttonholed us, eager to share his thoughts on Obama’s ban on lobbyists. If we had been surprised by Norma’s mastery of Obama trivia or this man’s wonkishness, we would find still more of it a few blocks away. At the Café Pekin, three rehearsing musicians befriended us gringas over some cans of Bucanero beer; between their soul-straining renditions of the son classics, one of the crooners asked my friend about the Bank of America bailout. She barely had a chance to answer when, one arm cradling his guitar and one arm marking his points, he began to explain why nationalizing banks would make sense for America. (His information, my friend admitted later, was quite accurate.)

We weren’t expecting to find this kind of parrying in Revolutionary Havana. Plenty of countries are well-informed about our political process, though we may know next to nothing about theirs. Cuba, however, is still very much a police state that puts a premium on controlling the information its citizens consume. And yet that was three people unfurling their up-to-date Americana within the span of a few short hours. How, we wondered, were Cubans getting these contraband factoids? And, more importantly, why were they so intent on getting them?

With the aging of its leaders and the growing staleness of the Revolution, the state has gotten a little gummy in its enforcement of the information lockdown and its subjects have grown bored with the fare the state feeds them. Every type of media—from television to women’s magazines—is state-controlled and produced by ideologically vetted cadres, which means little variety and even less nuance. News from America tends to concern American aggression, foolishness or greed. When Obama signed the order to close the detainee prison at Guantánamo, for example, Granma, the Cuban version of Pravda, reported that “Barack Obama fulfilled one of his main election promises by closing the prison located on the illegal base at Guantánamo, Cuba.” When the papers reported on our presidential election, it was to point out the the amounts of money wasted on the process and how the election was actually indirect and therefore unfair.

Most Cubans, however, seem to have developed an immunity to this kind of jingoism. When a revolution has been waged for decades, you tend to stop paying attention—especially when your daily life is spent in the chasm between Revolutionary rhetoric and reality: It’s hard for Cubans to believe that more revolution (the state’s answer to the embargo) will put more food on the table. Or to stomach the fact that, despite the Revolution’s promises of dignity and sovereignty from the Empire, tourists will see more of their homeland than they could ever afford to. Or that the country is scarcely free of the humiliating tourism-related vices of the pre-Castro era. Or that despite promises of egalitarianism, ministers and generals live not in crumbling Havana but in the posh suburb of Miramar where their well-fed, well-coiffed daughters can buy all the groceries they want with currency only available to foreigners.

As the government’s narrative of reality inches more and more toward the absurd, it breeds a palpable sense of boredom and hunger in a population far too educated for the island’s scant opportunities. (Billboards exhorting people to work and work harder—when there are no jobs to be had—look more than a little insulting in a city where thousands of unemployed Habaneros hang out on their stoops on weekday afternoons.) The sense of enclosure on the blockaded island only heightens the appetite for information.

Revolutionary media has proved unwilling to indulge this curiosity. The state shares no real news about itself. Nearly three years after Fidel first disappeared from public view, his subjects still don’t know whether he’s dead or alive, let alone what he’s up to. (His periodic and increasingly nonsensical screeds in Granma offer precious few hints. Not many people watch the state’s version of the news. “Mesa Redonda,” the official nightly news round table, is roundly ridiculed; Granma features real reporting from allies Venezuela and Bolivia, but that too has an ideological point. There are sports and educational programs on TV, but no entertainment news. Telenovelas, a genre Cubans love, have low production values and are also flavored with the blandness of political orthodoxy. It’s all dull, didactic stuff and it does nothing to sate Cubans’ appetite.

“The Cuban press is so narrow,” Rafael, a journalism student at the University of Havana, told me. “We have to get our information somehow. We’re hungry for it.” And this, mind you, is coming from someone with political credentials good enough to study journalism in Cuba.

That hunger is fed “por la izquierda,” to the left of the law. Some listen to Radio Martí, the Cuban version of Voice of America, though its impact is debatable. For the most part, however, people get their non-Granma news, their entertainment, and their beloved Brazilian telenovelas from illegal satellite TV, much of it beamed through Rupert Murdoch’s DirectTV.

This is how it works: One guy (and it’s usually a guy) rigs up a contraband satellite with parts smuggled in by visiting émigrés, or even with a receptor attached to a trashcan lid. A tangle of wires then channels the signal to anywhere from several residents to several apartment buildings. Each recipient pays a one-time installation and a monthly subscription fee of about two hundred national pesos, about half a professional’s monthly salary. Because everyone is hooked up to one central dish, subscribers have to watch the same thing as the dish owner, who will usually create a program based on a survey of his customers.

Cops and members of community vigilance organizations often get their subscriptions for free to disincentivize ratting and promote information sharing when, say, the police are about to sweep the town for illegal dishes. (The last major raid was two years ago, after Granma published a story about several men prosecuted for making dishes. It was, the paper claimed, “destabilizing and interventionist and forms part of the Bush administration plan aimed at destroying the revolution and with it the Cuban nation.”) Pirating techniques adapt quickly in response to official intercession. In order to fight the newly trained cable-cutting police that prowl the roofs, smugglers have now taken to hiding the cables underground. Masquerading as official work crews repairing leaks, they tear up the streets and lay the cables under the concrete.

All told, there are up to 30,000 of these illegal satellite dishes hidden in water tanks and air-conditioning units on rooftops all over Cuba, with the majority clustered in Havana. They bring in news, music videos, and, worse, commercials—and then Radio Bemba, the Cuban grapevine, takes over. The news is passed by word of mouth, on video cassettes, or, from the few Cubans who have Web access, on memory sticks. Together, DirectTV and Radio Bemba have become the de facto media empire here, swiftly and efficiently giving Cubans the information the Revolution refuses to provide.

Circumventing the state, however, is not without its dangers. Getting caught could get you or your family members kicked out of work or university, effectively blacklisting you for ideological impurity. Incurring economic punishment in the poverty-stricken country, though, could be far worse: An illegal dish might mean a catastrophic fine of a thousand pesos, more than most people earn in two months. And, though the enforcement is spotty and lurching, the official line has only grown harsher: With the ascent of Raúl, the world hoped for a loosening of the noose, but Cubans knew better. Soon, he proved them right, appointing an old Revolutionary comrade and former head of the secret police to head up the Information Ministry. He, in turn, introduced a law that forbids receiving foreign media from tourists. An infraction carries a three-year jail sentence. The point is clear: no outside media. Period.

But days after a sweep, the satellite dishes sprout right back up. The hunger and the boredom are still there and, now that we’ve elected a young black president, Cubans, half of whom are of mixed race and ruled by a cadre of feckless septuagenarians, want to know even more what we’re up to. Every conversation, we soon realized, followed a template: Once it was established that we were “yanquis,” all talk turned to Obama. How great he was, how he was going to fix Cuba’s problems by lifting the embargo, how noble of him to close down Guantánamo. An old man at one of Havana’s last synagogues proudly showed us a Xeroxed news clipping from a Mexican newspaper that showed Obama’s two Jewish wing men: Axelrod and Emanuel. “Jewish!” he exclaimed happily. Even the official press has taken a cautious, even optimistic tone when describing the new president. It is unclear, however, if this signals a softening of the confrontational Castro line or—less likely—is in response to Cubans’ hunger for change and faith in Obama.

“There is an absence of narrative here,” blogger Yoani Sánchez told me one afternoon in Havana. Few people in Cuba read her blog, Generation Y, but she is famous because she was once shown on TV in Miami and, thanks to Radio Bemba, the entire island now knows who she is. “We don’t know anything about our government—who their wives are, where they live. The Obamas have become our narrative. They are our telenovela.”

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Julia Ioffe is a freelance writer based in New York City.