Criticism on Cuban TV

By Dimitri Prieto

Carlos Gonsalvo is “Mentepollo” (Birdbrain)
Carlos Gonsalvo is “Mentepollo” (Birdbrain)

Many Cubans criticize the country’s television programming. It is commonly held that what is expressed on television is miles apart from what people talk about on the street and in their homes.

That criticism is probably fair to a great degree. However, there are some specific areas of TV programming that are as – or more – critical than common citizens when these shows comment on present occurrences in the country and around the world.

It’s pleasing to see that the noontime news, for instance, carries so many balanced reports on the problems of Cuban life. And what is important is that those reports come from many areas across the country.

These reporters appear as capable journalists, because in just a few minutes they are able to express major concerns and even suggest corrective measures. The issues dealt with range from inadequate wages and work disincentives, to social problems generated by the massive sugar mill closings.

These daytime reporters have also covered the substandard quality of junior high school education provided through young teachers, even adolescents, who teach a whole range of subjects, from mathematics to history.

A great strength of the midday news is that the reporters often interview several people in their homes, allowing us – the viewers – to hear a cross section of voices.

It’s a shame that the primetime evening news journalists are so much less objective in their analyses of social problems than are their daytime counterparts.

I think that noontime national news combined with the nation’s municipal television stations (which, however, do not cover the entire country), are important accomplishments in our national news coverage.

A sitcom on the cutting edge

Yet probably the most critical program on Cuban television – and one which in fact does come on during primetime viewing hours – is the sitcom Deja que yo te cuente (Let Me Tell You). The program is in three segments that somehow correspond to the basic daily activities of most Cubans.

First are the home life episodes of a rural family far from the center of “civilization”; second, is a segment that interviews an “intellectual,” Professor “Mentepollo” (Birdbrain), who analyzes topics spanning from the economic crisis to baseball, or the recent presence of parking attendants in the streets of Havana.

Lastly, there’s the segment on the agitated internal workings of a domestic-appliance-repair workshop, and all of those who visit it, including clients, inspectors, gossipers and the company’s manager Mr. Lindoro Incapaz (incompetent).

The TV show’s director is comedian Nelson Gudin, who plays in several get ups in each of the different segments of the show.

TV viewers howl at the sharp wit behind the lines of dimwit Mentepollo. Almost always, in any workplace situation on the following day (the program is aired on Wednesdays), somebody will no doubt raise a complaint to their “superiors,” egged on by the irreverence of that character.

But the political implication is clear, and the critiques made by Mentepollo continue to enjoy the constant green light of the TV producers. Meanwhile, the bureaucrats continue to learn about the need to face problems and not take it out on those who criticize. Perhaps this is the freedom of expression affirmed in our constitution? In any case, Mentepollo continues to be featured every Wednesday night.

TV sitcom with “Mentepollo” mirrors everyday Cuban life.
TV sitcom with “Mentepollo” mirrors everyday Cuban life.

However, the character most compelling is Lindoro Incapaz – the director, the boss, the upwardly mobile “socialist” bureaucratic. Many Cuban workers recognize their own managers in his “edifying” speeches. The vapid phrases and bureaucratic language that Incapaz uses have become trite across the length and breadth of the country.

A tremendous achievement is marked with the character Incapaz, in his suit and tie, always listening out for instructions from higher ups, along with his henchman-foreman “Lallave” (the-arm-lock), who is always dressed in red and offending the workers.

Both he and Incapaz are a synthesis, the quintessence of a certain social sector here on the island. The other characters in that segment of the program are equally representative.

Last Wednesday, Incapaz hid the fact from his work collective that he had been disciplined; he had been demoted from boss to become an ordinary worker in the workshop. I had the thrill of being overjoyed, together with so many other Cubans, at the superb conclusion of the program when the workers – upon discovering Incapz’s fall from grace – gave the had-been manager a mop and broom so that he could immediately assume his new responsibilities.

His grief-stricken face expressed all the despair of his new plight, that apocalyptic situation deserved by so many like Incapaz in our country: a social breed that must disappear.

I just finished watching the 1:00 o’clock news. And tonight, once again, is “Let Me Tell You.” We’ll see what’s in store in this historical series for Mentepollo and Incapaz and their “subordinates.”