As the government’s narrative of reality inches more and more toward the absurd, it breeds a palpable sense of boredom and hunger in a population far too educated for the island’s scant opportunities. (Billboards exhorting people to work and work harder—when there are no jobs to be had—look more than a little insulting in a city where thousands of unemployed Habaneros hang out on their stoops on weekday afternoons.) The sense of enclosure on the blockaded island only heightens the appetite for information.
Revolutionary media has proved unwilling to indulge this curiosity. The state shares no real news about itself. Nearly three years after Fidel first disappeared from public view, his subjects still don’t know whether he’s dead or alive, let alone what he’s up to. (His periodic and increasingly nonsensical screeds in Granma offer precious few hints. Not many people watch the state’s version of the news. “Mesa Redonda,” the official nightly news round table, is roundly ridiculed; Granma features real reporting from allies Venezuela and Bolivia, but that too has an ideological point. There are sports and educational programs on TV, but no entertainment news. Telenovelas, a genre Cubans love, have low production values and are also flavored with the blandness of political orthodoxy. It’s all dull, didactic stuff and it does nothing to sate Cubans’ appetite.
“The Cuban press is so narrow,” Rafael, a journalism student at the University of Havana, told me. “We have to get our information somehow. We’re hungry for it.” And this, mind you, is coming from someone with political credentials good enough to study journalism in Cuba.
That hunger is fed “por la izquierda,” to the left of the law. Some listen to Radio Martí, the Cuban version of Voice of America, though its impact is debatable. For the most part, however, people get their non-Granma news, their entertainment, and their beloved Brazilian telenovelas from illegal satellite TV, much of it beamed through Rupert Murdoch’s DirectTV.
This is how it works: One guy (and it’s usually a guy) rigs up a contraband satellite with parts smuggled in by visiting émigrés, or even with a receptor attached to a trashcan lid. A tangle of wires then channels the signal to anywhere from several residents to several apartment buildings. Each recipient pays a one-time installation and a monthly subscription fee of about two hundred national pesos, about half a professional’s monthly salary. Because everyone is hooked up to one central dish, subscribers have to watch the same thing as the dish owner, who will usually create a program based on a survey of his customers.
Cops and members of community vigilance organizations often get their subscriptions for free to disincentivize ratting and promote information sharing when, say, the police are about to sweep the town for illegal dishes. (The last major raid was two years ago, after Granma published a story about several men prosecuted for making dishes. It was, the paper claimed, “destabilizing and interventionist and forms part of the Bush administration plan aimed at destroying the revolution and with it the Cuban nation.”) Pirating techniques adapt quickly in response to official intercession. In order to fight the newly trained cable-cutting police that prowl the roofs, smugglers have now taken to hiding the cables underground. Masquerading as official work crews repairing leaks, they tear up the streets and lay the cables under the concrete.
All told, there are up to 30,000 of these illegal satellite dishes hidden in water tanks and air-conditioning units on rooftops all over Cuba, with the majority clustered in Havana. They bring in news, music videos, and, worse, commercials—and then Radio Bemba, the Cuban grapevine, takes over. The news is passed by word of mouth, on video cassettes, or, from the few Cubans who have Web access, on memory sticks. Together, DirectTV and Radio Bemba have become the de facto media empire here, swiftly and efficiently giving Cubans the information the Revolution refuses to provide.