Cuba Has a New TV Alternative

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.

  • ac,

    I understand the issue quite well, thank you, informed by facts, not political biases and assumptions.

    I have CD’s by Cuban musicians, recorded in Cuba. For example, the classic Buena Vista Social Club CD was recorded in EGREM studios in Havana. The CD’s were printed by World Circuit, in the UK. The Cuban artists received royalties on the sales. I saw illegal copies of this CD for sale in Havana. Pay attention: a CD by Cuban musicians (plus one American who broke US law to enter Cuba), and which was manufactured in the UK and therefore having nothing to do with the US embargo.

    The UK does not embargo Cuba. The UK buys products from Cuba, and Cuba buys products from the UK. Millions of British tourists have visited Cuba. Yet the Cuban government turns a blind eye to the illegal copying of CDs from the UK. How would does the US embargo figure into this situation? It doesn’t. It’s a lame excuse used by regime apologists.

    Amazon sells the music of the Cuban punk band, Porno Para Ricardo, in mp3 format for download. The band members are harassed by the Cuban authorities and are banned from performing in the country. The lead singer and guitarist, Gorky Aguirre, was once jailed on charges of “pre-criminal behaviour and social dangerousness”. But I can buy their music through a US based company, despite the US embargo.

    Similarly, I have books by Cuban writers printed in the US. Yes, indeed, printed in the US. In fact, right now I am holding an edition of “The Lost Steps” by Alejo Carpentier, printed in 2001 by the University of Minnesota Press. A brilliant book, by the way.

    My copy of “Dirty Havana” by Pedro-Juan Gutierrez was printed by Ecco Books, which is an imprint of Harper-Collins, the big American publishing house, headquartered in New York city. The author lives in Havana and receives royalties from the sales of his books. Ironically, while I bought his book in Canada, & you can buy it in the US, his books are banned in Cuba. A Cuban author, living in Cuba, his books are banned in Cuba, but available in the USA. Again, the US embargo is irrelevant.

    So we see the only real embargo with regards to Cuban books & music is the one imposed by the Cuba authorities against the Cuban people.

    As for the US considering Cuba an enemy: sadly that works both ways. The Cuban government considers the US an enemy, too. Both sides have plenty of historical justification for their positions. However, to end these attitudes, the only reasonable approach is for both sides to start taking steps toward normalization. Expecting one side to do it all before the other will budge an inch is unrealistic.

  • Sorry, but you don’t understand the issue. The few albums you can get in Amazon are NOT produced by Cuban studios, thats why you can acquire them. Try getting something from EGREM (not just EGREM in the title) and let me know your experience.

    I agree with the ethic side of the question (except for counting piracy as lost sale and equaling copyright infringement with theft -and the law is with me in that one), but once you allow a free for all approach to US IP material (the biggest portion of the pie in entertainment), the rest is just peanuts and the scale is so small that it isn’t a concert to the involved parties. And just for the record, they also sell copyrighted material from Cuban authors.

    The solution? I stand by what I said before: normalize relationships and remove the pretext of the embargo and negotiate mutual respect for IP protection as everyone else in the world.

    And sorry, but you have it backwards. Is precisely the trade with the enemy act the one that provides the rationale for this situation. Stop considering Cuba an enemy nation and remove the laws that prevents trade with the Cuban government and then the illegality of this will become obvious. In the mean time, Cuba has no interest nor motivation to protect the interests of a nation that considers it an active enemy, terrorist and whatsnot.

  • ac,

    You are mistaken. The Cuban artists are paid royaties. Music, books and cultural products are exempted from the embargo. I have CD’s by Omara Portuondo and books by Pedro-Juan Gutierrez and Leonardo Padura. They are all still living in Cuba. I do not know how much of the royalty the Cuban government allows them to keep, but it is paid.

    The fact that the average Cuban cannot afford the list price of an imported DVD is irrelevant to whether the practice of pirating is illegal. In most cases, the owners of the copyright go after the sellers & duplicators, not the buyers.

    At a street side shop in Havana I saw CD’s & DVD’s by Mexican, Spanish, British, Venezuelan and American artists. So this is not simply about the embargo. They are pirating anything they can sell. That’s theft.

    Settling issues like these are a necessary precursor to full normalization of relations between Cuba and the rest of the world. After fifty four years of banditry, if the Cuban government wants to be welcomed into the community of nations, they have to start behaving like a civilized country and follow the international laws of trade. They cannot expect to receive the benefits of international trade while they flaunt any laws they don’t like.

  • You are wrongly assuming that they would pay for it in the first place and you can’t be wringer. When wages are as lower as $30 at month, expecting them to buy you product is unreasonable.

    In the other hand, extensive use of your product translates directly in free publicity and the faint hope that when they are in position of acquiring your product, they will likely do.

    In any case, the point is moot, you cannot pay for a disk produced in Cuba in Amazon without breaking the embargo laws and they use the same justification to do the same with your IP.

    Again, end the stupid cold war antiques and normalize relations and that will include for sure mutual respect for IP.

  • Through Amazon, I can buy a book or CD through by a Cuban writer or musician and a portion of that payment will be passed on as a royalty to the artist. But in Cuba, no royalty is paid to the artist or film studio whose work is pirated. This applies to movies and music from all over the world, not just the US. This is copyright infringement and it is indeed a form of theft, whether the Cuban government admits it or not.

    A similar problem arose in China several years ago. There were government owned factories that were churning out pirated copies of foreign movies, music and software. When China applied to join the WTO, the rest of the world told them no dice, not until you stop the criminal theft of intellectual property.

    The same rules apply to Cuba. So long as the Cuban government feels they are above the law and can rob any foreigner they like, foreigners will be reluctant to do business with them. If they want to have access to the world economy, they will have to play by the rules of the world economy. You can’t have it both ways.

  • As a former sofware company founder, I could not disagee more. Copyright infringement is absolutely theft. When you use my product without paying me, the amount of revenue I otherwise would have collected from you is the amount of your theft. Typically, the penalty for this theft is treble damages. The lack of a “legal way of cashing” the transaction does not make the theft any less despicable.

  • Clearly, what Fernando meant to say was that Cuba chooses to ignore international copyright law and the US chooses to not enforce it against the Cuban thieves who steal content. My wife works for Univision and she tells me that the Miami studio which broadcaststhe late afternoon news program ‘Primer Impacto’ which is seen in Cuba via illegal satellite receives a surprising number of emails from Cuba praising and/or criticising broadcasts! What Fernando did not mention is that heretofore, Cuban TV did not broadcast American-made movies that showcased American military prowess. Even that is changing now. While TeleSur remains a pro-Chavez left-leaning network, its live broadcast will still no doubt continue to contribute to the unraveling of the 54-year old lie that has been told to the Cuban people regarding life outside of Cuba. Coupled with increasing internet access, Cubans are slowly but surely modernizing their view of the world and of their role in it.

  • First of all, copyright infringement is not theft because you are not taking away anything from the affected party (and even worse in this case because US IP holders don’t have a legal way of cashing their copyrighted material in Cuba),

    As long as the US government refuses to acknowledge Cuban IP, Cuba can and will ignore theirs and the imbalance on the generated content will benefit Cuba.

    Just remove the useless embargo, normalize relations and they will be forced to pay as everyone else.

  • “Satellite dishes are… concealed in plastic water tanks, etc.” I admire Cuban ingenuity, and it has been said to me “In Cuba, nothing is permissible, but anything is possible.”

  • How exactly does the embargo exonerate Cuba from respecting international copyright laws and paying royalties on stolen intellectual property? Is this some new filed of jurisprudence I haven’t heard of?

    They get away with it, that’s obvious. But that does not equate to an exemption of breaking laws.

    Am I exonerated for breaking copyright laws when I copy my CDs of Cuban music and resell them in Canada?

    If I point at a law in another country that I don’t like, for example the oppressive religious laws in Saudi Arabia, does that give me the right to steal anything I like from the country? Woo-hoo! Free oil for me!

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