The official message: Cuba the best country in the world

When I left my country on April 1998 there were only two TV channels availablein Cuba, both (of course) government stations. They usually broadcast from around 5 p.m. until 11 or 11:30 p.m. The one exception was Sunday mornings, when they would show cartoons and kids' shows. More than one Cuban thought this was done to give the kids an attractive alternative to going to church on Sunday.

The news shows were done professionally, but contained only what the Communists wanted announced. Good news was the norm.

Negative news about the Cuban situation was almost unknown. Any hint of criticism of anything the government did was nonexistent. Reports on the progress of the sugar planting, harvest and processing were constant, never mentioning how actual production was constantly falling. Crimes were reported only if they had been solved and the criminals arrested.

Movies, mostly American, were popular on Saturday nights. By far the most popular shows were the "telenovelas" (soap operas), going on for dozens or hundreds of episodes. Some were Cuban-made but the real hits were soaps from Brazil and Venezuela. All the twists and turns of romance and tragedy were avidly followed night after night.

While very popular and entertaining, most of these soap operas were actually undermining the government's own propaganda efforts.

The official message was that Communist Cuba was the best country in the world. But every nightthe viewers could see the clothes, cars, food, telephones, gadgets and lifestyle of the "corrupt" capitalist nations and compare them to their own reality.

Religion likewise slipped onto Cuban TV through some of the soap operas. There was no religious programming whatsoever in Cuba (except later for the Pope's visit).

The Castro show versus Radio Marti

Fidel Castro, however, considers himself a true TV star. He presumes that his speeches, even if they go on forfour hours, are the best programs possible. To play it safe, however, his speeches are on both channels, so there is no competition. But the speeches are never announced in advance.

Suddenly the planned program does not appear, and there he is. They likewise never announce how long he will talk, or whether the soap opera or programmed movie will be shown after he is done or postponed until the next night. So if you are desperate to see the next chapter of the soap you leave Fidel on, even for hours, because whenever he stops they might show the soap.

The U.S. tries to counter the effectiveness of Cuban TV as propaganda by spending millions of dollars every year to broadcast "T.V. Martí" to Cuba from Florida. But Cuba easily blocks the signal, so no one in Cuba ever sees it. This, of course, does not stop us from spending more and more millions to keep on broadcasting it to no-one.

The U.S. propaganda radio station "Radio Martí" is, however, seldom jammed and is widely listened to. They offer news, commentary and even some entertainment. They also, as I mentioned, offer some highly politicized religious programs. I enjoyed listening to "Radio Martí", and I think they provide a useful service.

So, I found that Cubans are quite hungry for information and entertainment from outside. They manage to get a little over their own TV and radio system despite the government's efforts at control, and seek more as best they can. For myself, while I believe that everyone should have free access to information and culture, I do in fact as a pastor dread to think of what will be dumped into Cuban homes once such freedom is finally achieved. TV can build up, but it can also destroy. As a wise journalist once said, "Keep your mind fully open, and people will try to dump their garbage there."