Fernando Ravsberg*

Movie “piracy” is so legal that these are sold in the doorways of homes. Photo: Raquel Perez
Movie “piracy” is so legal that these are sold in the doorways of homes. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — For the first time in half a century, Cubans will be able to legally watch the broadcasts of a foreign television network in their homes. On Sunday, Telesur began real time broadcasts on the island, whereas previously only a small selection of pre-recorded programs from that network was shown.

The Cuban government has maintained a strict control of the media, particularly television. Not even Washington, with all its technological potential, has managed to get its TV waves to reach the island, despite spending tens of millions of dollars with that aim.

However nothing in Cuba is what it seems and the truth is that such control isn’t so strict either. Thousands of clandestine satellite dishes and hundreds of legal video banks supply Cubans with the latest movies, TV shows and sports programs.

To catch up in this programming competition, Cuban TV multiplied its number of channels and began the massive pirating of documentaries, series and films from the United States, a country that can make no claims against these actions due to its strained relations with Cuba.

Thanks to the embargo

Generally, Cuban TV was exceedingly politicized and boring, but in recent years efforts have been made to counter the presence of satellite dishes and video banks. The number of channels went from two to five and their schedules were expanded to the point that there’s now 24-hour programming.

Movies and cartoons from the US have always been seen here because the economic embargo exonerates Cuba from paying royalties, a small benefit that is now being fully exploited with the “pirating” of movies, series, sports programs and documentaries.

The Discovery Channel supplies Cuban channels with documentaries, while Disney provides cartoons for children. Meanwhile HBO and other channels provide films and series like Dexter, Revenge, Criminal Minds, The Mentalist and others.

In terms of viewer preference, US programs are surpassed only by Brazilian soap operas, which are still shown during prime time TV hours. Cubans name their children after the characters and new meaning are given to words because of these shows. Indeed, private restaurants are called “paladares” thanks to one Brazilian telenovela.

Clandestine TV

Satellite dishes are smuggled into the country from Miami, entering the country after generous sums are paid to customs officials for looking the other way. Presently there are thousands of these devices across the country – hidden in lofts, concealed in plastic water tanks, etc.

Cuban TV viewers are quite up to date on television programs, particularly those from the US. Photo: Raquel Perez
Cuban TV viewers are quite up to date on television programs, particularly those from the US. Photo: Raquel Perez

Their influence has multiplied because many of their owners have created cable networks by linking up with the TVs of their neighbors. In this way, the signals from a satellite antenna can reach homes in a several block area around it, with the monthly cost of the service not exceeding $10 USD per month for each household.

These antennas transmit US programming that includes several Spanish channels, some from Miami, where the Cuban issue is always present. The favorite shows on the island are telenovelas, sporting events, news and comedy programs.

Virtually the only channel from the United States that cannot be seen today is TV Marti, paradoxically designed by Washington to reach Cuban viewers. Since it began broadcasting, electronic barriers have prevented its signal from reaching the island.

The banking system

Initially, “banks” were places where one could rent videos. First these were in the Beta-max format, later VHS, and then as DVDs. Now you can go with a hard drive and have it loaded up with movies, cartoons and series.

On one webpage Rosa offers a season of any series for only $1 USD, while Miguelito will sell each episode for only eight cents. Rafael is a bit more expensive, but he’ll come to your house, while Abelito offers HD films for the equivalent of only forty cents.

Each of these banks has hundreds of movies and episodes of series. Most of these have been downloaded from the Internet by relatives in Miami or by people in Cuba who work for businesses, hotels or universities, etc. that have broadband connections to the Internet.

Interestingly, all of this is so legal that even pirated movies are sold in doorways without anyone asking about their origins. Undoubtedly, despite the restrictions, Cubans are very up to date with regard to television.
(*) See Fernando Ravsberg’s blog (in Spanish).

15 thoughts on “Cuba Has a New TV Alternative

  • No one would try to smuggle a satellite dish. They are home made in Cuba as in Africa with metal mesh and polymers. It is the LNB and the receiver that are brought in by visitors from USA and Canada.

  • The satellite dishes are made in Cuba, as they are in all African countries, with metal mesh and polymers. It is the LNB and receiver smuggled in by tourists.

  • Griffin, if you are interested in going to Cuba to negotiate payments be my guest. I’m sure the government authorities would welcome you with open arms. Or maybe you can sue the Cuban government from the safety of the U.S. After you win a judgment you may want to place a lien on El Capitolio!

  • They watch these shows only via satellite channels if they work in a hotel or bar or for a foreign company or have one set up in their house (gov’t illegal) which is linked actually to a “paying account” outside the country so no it is not free or illegal the TV accounts are paid by someone in US in order to have the channels. Excuse me Westerners are just as good at recording all media illegally & they have the high speed net to do it better than anyone! By the way I buy all my music & DVD’s legally & never record media for free I believe the artists have a right to be paid for their art! And when in Cuba if I have time, I watch any of the 5 TV channels with whatever is on… or put in a DVD I bought & paid for in a store in Canada. I could live without TV if I had to anyway & prefer books & going to live music concerts where the artists get paid up front!

  • Griffin, you can say what you like about “copyright” rules but American kids (& adults) & other countries download & copy everything for free via the net or satellite TV for decades… this is recent in Cuba only within the last 10 years now. And these programs on Cuban TV can bypass the laws because it says it can only be used for “entertainment purposes & not for profit” well in Cuba there are no big companies paying millions of dollars for commercials it is all commercial free TV & free to the Cubans to watch with no profit made by anyone & only for entertainment purposes, so there you go! The guys who sell at these outdoor stands for a few pesos (less than a $1 each), which I pass everyday mostly sell Latin music, movies & cartoons for children all in Spanish & not usually American…. I have looked, so not the main stream current big movies or shows in English! Those as mentioned before are passed via memory key through those who understand English & are interested in English US/Canadian/British entertainment, a small portion of the population actually or shown on late night TV & weekends with Spanish subtitles for the young people who are the main audience for such shows.

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