June 23, 2002

Cuban TV: All Castro, All the Time

Marvin Kitman

The most popular program on Cuban TV is the Fidel Castro talk show. His talks and appearances at rallies get a 100 Nielsen rating and share (the percentage of
sets in use).

The secret of this astonishing achievement is having his appearances broadcast on two networks - Ch. 6 Cubavisión and Ch.2 Telerebelde - simultaneously. His
success is aided by the fact that there are no other channels.

Strictly speaking, there is a third network, a new educational TV channel as of last month. But it also carries the same program.

In backward nations like ours, there are alternatives to State of the Union messages and other important political programming. A classic of American
democracy-in-action is a rerun of "Casablanca." Counterprogramming is considered counterrevolutionary in Cuba, even if it was possible. Which it isn't.

It's all Castro, all the time. There are no options. They don't care if the Olympics or the World Cup is on.

The hype for the show is low-key. The news-at-noon lead story might be, "Tonight at 6, Fidel is speaking." Or, "There will be a march at 7 tomorrow morning."

Often, Fidel will come on the air the night before and do a promo. The spot can last for what seems like four hours. Like a TV weatherman, he will predict it will be
hot and muggy and will forecast scattered showers or high winds that come from the Batista "thugs" in Miami. "If you have a heart condition or other health
problems," he will warn, "do not come out."

In the United States, we call political rallies "demonstrations," in France "manifestations." In Cuba, they are called "concentrations."

There is usually a concentration every Saturday morning. It can be called for a variety of reasons. On May 1, there was one in honor of the Chicago Eight, as it was
explained to me, "the eight martyr workers who were shot for striking by the patrones in 1887." It also could be a march to say, "We like to be Communists" or "We
like to be soldiers."

I happened to be in Havana and caught a special midweek concentration on June 13. This was the famous 2 million man march, not only along the Malecon in La
Habana Vieja, but in every major city in Cuba.

All of which were shown live on TV on all three stations from 7 a.m. to about 1 p.m. As an added attraction, the highlights of the concentration were rerun in an
edited version that may have run four or five hours in the evening. I got the point earlier and stopped watching.

This one was a rally to protest the speech to the Batista thugs in Miami by Bush II - as they call our El Presidente in the only newspaper in Cuba (Granma). It also
was in support of a constitutional amendment that makes it unconstitutional to amend the constitution ever again. A contradiction in terms, perhaps, but one that is
popular with the Fidelistas.

Fidel was not scheduled to speak on this very hot and muggy day, only to lead the march. But this did not keep many away.

(Crowd estimation is an inexact science. I remember when Richard Nixon came to Manhattan's Garment Center one day during the 1968 campaign and, reportedly,
1 million turned out to see Mr. Republican, the great friend of labor. But some people knew it was lunch hour, and at that hour, 1 million garment workers would
"turn out" to see Martin Bormann.)

"What a spontaneous demonstration," my wife said of the Cuban crowd on the screen in our hotel room.

Whether it was a 1 million or 2 million hombres march - I didn't want to press anybody for a more exact count, a sign of a running dog Yankee imperialist - it was a
spectacular production.

Thousands of Fidelistas in their red Che (Guevera) and Jose (Marti) T-shirts waved little Cuban flags as they approached the cameras, while a loudspeaker exhorted:

"Viva el socialismo."

"Libertad para los heroes" (the five Cuban spies who had been jailed in Florida for infiltrating exile organizations).

"Viva Fidel."

In case you missed the loudspeaker, every few minutes, the words were emblazoned in fat, red type on the screen. This was subliminal TV!

Occasionally, news people interviewed marchers. Sound bites in Cuban TV journalism are more like a full meal, with brandy and cigars afterward. I didn't
understand everything that was said. My Spanish is muy malo. But it was great political theater.

The only thing missing was Fidel speaking. There is a tendency for him not to speak when it is too hot. Last fall, he passed out one morning. "Six-hour speeches are
things of the past," one source said. "Intelligent people know he is not well. Lucky if one hour now, or half hour."

The advantage of watching on TV is seeing what he looks like. He has bags under his eyes the size of the gladstone bags the mob used to deliver payoffs to Batista
officials in the old days. He walks stiffly, as if on a forced march.

After about four hours, I decided I had seen enough. It began to drag like the Emmy telecast. I also felt I was missing something not seeing it "live."

So, I jumped into a 1955 Chevy Impala Deluxe cab to the Hotel Nacionale on the Malecon, six or seven lines of police and soldiers away from the concentration
route. The Nacionale is that great American Meyer Lansky's contribution to Cuban culture, along with gambling, prostitution and dope. From the windows of the
Lounge of History, underneath murals depicting celebrities who slept there (Tyrone Power, Humphrey Bogart, Carol II of Romania, Errol Flynn, Johnny Weismuller,
Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, Gary Cooper, Aly Khan, Rita Hayworth), I saw the real thing.

Could this be like the May Day parades in the early days of Stalin, I wondered, when the Red Army circled the block and came back to impress and frighten foreign
dignitaries with their numbers? No. The crowd was authentico, I could certify as I spent the rest of the morning drinking Cuban coffee (four sugars) and a mojito or
two, and smoking a Cohiba. "Viva el socialismo," I was able to say with more than usual enthusiasm.

They also have other programs on the two major Cuban networks. The second most popular program is Hollywood movies. A Cuban TV producer goes to
Blockbuster in the States, buys or rents a tape, brings it back to the commissar in charge of programs, who then throws it on the air. They don't worry about the FBI
warnings. No copyright problemos here. American film copyright laws don't apply in Cuba.

This probably pains Fox, Disney, Sony and other financially pressed movie corporations. But the Cuban people love it.

Even this broad range of broadcasting does not satisfy Cuban media freaks. Man does not live by strawberry and chocolate alone; he needs his ESPN, Cartoon
Network, HBO, Discovery and CNN on satellite TV.

The second major indoor sport in Havana, next to watching satellite TV, is hiding the dish. "It is hidden in the house of the dog," one source explained, "in swimming
pools, with the plants, in the shower, with the garbage outside. The imagination of Cuban people is very big in finding a way to hide illegal dish."

So a strange alliance has evolved in Cuba. Fidelistas and DirecTV capitalist swine are in the same boat for different reasons. DirecTV is against watching its service
for free on principle. It's a bad business plan. The Fidelistas are against satellite TV because they are against the dissemination of uncontrolled information.

Castro is not the first dictator not to understand the way the media work. Given open access, people do not tend to watch news and public-affairs documentaries.
They watch sex, violence and unreal reality shows: "The Bachelor" and "Fear Factor."

They have nothing to fear but fear itself, which in a totalitarian state apparently is quite a lot.

Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.