How Cuba Is Portrayed on US Television

Graham Sowa

Building in Baracoa, Havana, the beach town just up the road from the ELAM medical school.

I returned to the United States from Cuba a week ago but Cuba did not leave me alone for long.  Within a few days of getting back I saw Anthony Bourdain’s Cuba episode of his food and travel show No Reservations.

I thought about the amazing amount of advance work it must take to film an American television show in Cuba, surely some reservations were required.

Foreshadowing more Cuba themed television I was pretty sure I spotted Anderson Cooper on my flight from Havana to Miami.  My suspicions of who I thought I saw in Terminal 2 of Airport José Martí were confirmed.

Mr. Cooper twittered that he had arrived from Cuba “on an assignment for 60 Minutes” right after our plane landed.  It appears as though U.S. television producers think that Cuba is ready for prime time.

In the United States television shows about Cuba have two constants: first, they usually pick a side politically even though they try to seem like they are impartial; second, the video shots of Havana and the accompanying narration is almost always the same.

In a step away from the first of those constants Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations focused on seemingly frank conversations between the host and Cubans.  These interactions culminated in Mr. Bourdain’s failed Dionysian attempt to imbibe his Cuban handlers until they would talk a liberty.  Luckily for us viewers Mr. Bourdain did not take a political extreme one way or another, and left us to ponder his experience.

For whatever it lacked in political side taking the episode of No Reservations was filled with what we are used to seeing about Havana on U.S. televisions.

The seawall:  the narration says it is always full of people and then closes a good shot of it at sunset, preferably with an embracing couple eclipsing the horizon.

The old cars:  they run on ingenuity and show how trendy Cuba was before the Revolution.

The crumbling buildings: diversity of colonial architecture and its preservation by necessity of use rather than for nostalgia for the past.

The television is selling Cuba the same way travel programs sell any tourist destination in the world, with a tight focus on the highlights and narration that oversells the sentiment.  Television is a vacationer who never ventures more than a few dozen meters from the tour bus.

For example, a television shot of an historic street is meant to suggest a whole town is preserved in space and time.  However just a few blocks away modernity has made the place look not so different from anything else constructed in the late 20th century.  The charm is gone.  But, as always, Cuba is different.

In Havana those scenes of the old cars, the saltwater-corroded edifices, and the seawall are more honest than in other tourist destinations.  Havana really does look like a city that is hundreds of years old, those cars really do fill the streets, and the seawall is the city’s social avenue (weather permitting).

Yes, some things are new and some are restored, but unlike many cities that preserve just a portion or “historical district” of their past a confluence of circumstances has kept Havana different from other new world capitals.  And television loves different.


3 thoughts on “How Cuba Is Portrayed on US Television

  • whenever i hear the word kultur i reach for my pistol. hermann goering. HT should have a bit of comedy for popularity.

  • HEMINGWAY ON STAGE loves performing in Cuba…Havana, Holguin, Santiago…and hopes to do so more often. What a joy to share my love for Cuba combined with Hemingway’s love for Cuba and to be blessed with an immense abundance of Cuban love in return. Cuban love is both tender and passionate. It is a gift to cherished. It is Cuba. It is new, it is old and it is eternal.
    Ah, if only I could make America fully aware of this love.

  • nice article…..when we go to Cuba we fly into Havana…spend a few days then travel around this great island and mingle and engage with the people….and stay away from anything that resembles a bus tour.

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