Censorship in Cuba: The Thirst for the Forbidden

Fernando Ravsberg*

Not even comedian Luis Silva has been spared TV censorship.

HAVANA TIMES — Some 40 years ago, Spanish and Italian censors prohibited the screening of Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, calling it an obscene film. Thanks to this, French cinemas were flooded by Spaniards and Italians who travelled to the country to satisfy their curiosity.

This came to mind when, at the “video rental” near my house, I was offered the “forbidden” episodes of Vivir del cuento, the most popular Cuban television show, starring Panfilo, a pensioner portrayed by comedian Luis Silva.

They told me the censors had not allowed those episodes to be aired on television and I immediately asked them to make me a copy. “They sell like hot-cakes, everybody wants them,” the owner of the rental place told me while copying the episodes to my hard drive.

I copied a number of interesting things, but the first thing I did when I got home was find out what good old Panfilo had done to incur the wrath of the gods, to the point that they didn’t allow the shows on the air, not even after the broadcaster spent thousands of pesos to produce them.

To my great surprise, the first of these episodes was about the “package”, that collection of films, television series, documentaries, soap operas and reality shows sold on the streets on the island and bought by most Cubans.

Cuba’s TV show Panfilo was censored because its main character didn’t want a Soviet car, not even as gift.

I saw the episode twice to try and understand why it had been censored and the only thing I found was that they poke fun at Cuban television’s attempts at producing an official “package” to compete with the popular version, in a desperate effort to win back the viewers they’ve lost.

The other Vivir del cuento episode that was banned makes fun of soviet technology, particularly that used in the Moscovich, an automobile that most Cubans believe is the worst that has ever been imported to Cuba throughout its history.

I imagine that, following the renewal of relations with the Russians and the pardoning of Cuba’s debt, the censors felt that poking fun at them was not convenient, lest President Putin watch the show, take offense and decide to suspend the bilateral ties between the countries.

The censorship apparatus believes it is protecting citizens, sparing them disturbing thoughts and questions by choosing for them the books they should read, the news they should read and even the issues they should laugh about.

People, however, aren’t exactly grateful. When a tribute for the censors of the 1970s (now retired) was aired on television, Cuban intellectuals unleashed a veritable storm of emails and such strong winds of protest that the country’s cultural authorities had no choice but to apologize.

Cultural advisor Abel Prieto alerts us to how counterproductive forbidding the “package” can be.

The fact of the matter is that, at the time, some of the most important Cuban intellectuals today were sanctioned, humiliated and ultimately marginalized for asking difficult questions, because they were misunderstood or simply for committing the sin of being homosexuals.

The Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate­ – banned from television for 20 years – shows us much more than an era marked by homophobia. It unmasks the intolerance towards individual thought in the name of a utopian unanimity (which some appear to miss).

The wall raised by that information monopoly, however, is today full of holes thanks to Internet access, illegal satellite dishes, the weekly “package” and the USB drives passed on from person to person on the island.

Even without all of these new technologies, it is very difficult to mold the soul of a people through censorship. In Spain, authorities never managed to convert citizens into puritans. On the contrary, the thirst for all things forbidden gave way to a kind of “overflow”, a time in which nudity and sex became the norm.

This swinging of the pendulum is probably what Abel Prieto, the president’s cultural advisor, fears, which is why he is critical of certain aspects of the “package” but suggests it should not be banned, saying “we already know what happens with things that are forbidden.”

What we need now is for the censors to understand this, so that they will stop banning the music videos of the band Buena Fe simply because two women kiss in them, censoring the criticisms of the public health system voiced by Paquito on Radio Rebelde or the jokes of good old Panfilo and his retired friends.
(*) Visit the website of Fernando Ravsberg.

10 thoughts on “Censorship in Cuba: The Thirst for the Forbidden

  • Check your reading comprehension skills. I LIVED in Cuba. Can’t get more FIRST-hand than that. Human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia do not justify abuses in Cuba. And yes, this is HT, try to stay on topic.

  • I was still living in Cuba when the movie Strawberries and Chocolate was released. It certainly wasn’t censored as the article states. There were queues to see it at all the cinemas and lots of people, including me, watched it. I felt that the overall message of the movie was anti-government but that didn’t stop the Cuban Government from funding it. And they certainly didn’t try and stop people from seeing it. I can’t imagine the US Government funding a film that made them look bad!

  • are we even talking about the same movie now?

    “The film generally received unfavorable reviews. Rotten Tomatoes’ collection of critics gave the film a 25% approval rating, with the stated consensus that “what starts as a promising exercise devolves into an overlong, unevenly directed disappointment.”


  • I see, so it is all second hand information then? that’s great ways to form some strong opinions. There is censorship everywhere. Check out censorship in one of America’s biggest allies – Saudi Arabia. Now that is REAL censorship. They whipped a kid for blogging. What you have in Cuba is child’s play in government oversight. But then again, I am sure you are not interested in discussing that. This is after-all HT, where you probably prefer we all only discuss just Cuba 🙂

  • My Cuban wife and her Cuban family help me with my “naiveté”. Strike one. I lived in Cuba for nearly three years, so I am good on the whole “difficulty that Cubans undergo each day” part as well. Strike two. As far as complicating Yamila’s life, the owner of the casa particular I lived in, she is a big girl. She can take care of herself. That’s the problem with you “wannabees”, you like that Cubans stay uninformed and weak. Finally, the movie is contraband in Cuba and Blockbuster is out of business. Strike three, you’re out!

  • That’s true Hugo, but only because Blockbuster is out of business!

  • Hello??? The movie is banned in Cuba. You can’t find it anywhere. Nor can you find many of the great Cuban authors or poets published in Cuba. That’s just one of the problems Cubans face.

  • The Lost City is a great movie! The writing, acting and direction are first class, but what really sets it apart is the music! The very rhythm of the film is a Cuban rhumba, cha-cha and salsa.

    But yes, Andy Garcia is an outspoken anti-Castro Cuban America. So his brilliant movie is banned in his native land.

  • Yah naïve Americans going to Cuba have no idea the difficulty that Cubans undergo each day. I hope you learned your lesson to not complicate the lives of locals on you visits. But things are looking a lot better now, with prisoners released and all. I bet you can get the movie more often locally in Cuba than you can get at blockbuster.

  • For newcomers to Cuban reality, it may come as a surprise that on one of my first visits to Cuba in 2008, I unwittingly brought a DVD of Cuban actor Andy Garcia’s movie “The Lost City”. I had no idea this movie had been banned in Cuba. The movie is about one of the sons of a wealthy Havana family in 1959. This son, Garcia’s character is a prominent Havana night-club owner who is caught in the violent transition from the oppressive regime of Batista to the revolutionary Castro government. DVD players were newly legal in Cuba and my casa particular owner invited me to bring her a DVD player and DVDs on my next visit to Cuba. My first night there I set up the DVD player and put the Garcia DVD in so we could watch the movie together. When she saw the DVD jacket, she got up and closed the curtains. She also turned the volume way down. I was still new to Castro oppression so when I asked why all the precaution, she said it was bad enough that a Yuma had brought her a DVD player but I also “smuggled” a BANNED movie into the country. Nonetheless, popcorn bowl in her lap, she enjoyed every minute of that movie. Good movie by the way.

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