Cuba Finds It Has No Shortage of Opinions
By Rick Rockwell
Rick Rockwell teaches journalism at Northwestern University.
After Fidel Castro announced price increases on cigarettes and alcohol last summer, Cuba's radio airwaves were filled with complaints. But listeners weren't tuning in to Radio Marti, the U.S. government station beamed from Miami. Instead, they were hearing irate callers on shows controlled by the Cuban government.
"Sometimes we run into trouble," shrugs Pedro Rojas, director of the government radio and television.
More critical voices are being heard in Havana these days as Cuba's economic conditions deteriorate and thousands of refugees flee for the United States – although few dare speak ill of Castro himself. The popular radio call-in shows have reflected some of that debate, and Rojas says the programs are taken off the air at times by government officials unhappy with being criticized.
A Western diplomat in the country, who says he respects Rojas as a journalist and that "no doubt he sometimes goes too far," nevertheless doubts that many of the voices heard on radio call-in shows are completely spontaneous. While opinions expressed on the airwaves and at workers' forums organized by the government "may be heated and appear controversial," he says, "if we took the dispute and put it in the United States we wouldn't even notice the difference of opinion."
The shifting signals sent to Cubans about free speech can be seen in the government response to thousands of homemade satellite dishes that have sprouted up on Havana rooftops. The government had seemed to tolerate the dishes, by which Cubans can access CNN or other news sources, but has recently begun to scramble the broadcasts.
Cubans seem less concerned with the loss of CNN than with other programs. Alfredo Prieto Gonzalez of Havana's Center for the Study of the Americas notes that many are simply eager to glimpse U.S. consumer culture. "In the States, everyone leaves the room when the commercials come on," he says. "Here, everyone is watching the program to see the commercials."
Rojas, who acknowledges most Cubans prefer the Discovery Channel, movies and sports to news, boasts that his two TV newscasts still attract some four million people (in a nation of 11 million). The newscasts include video lifted from CNN and NBC satellite feeds, but the content focuses on government triumphs, such as improvements in the child mortality rate. Even disasters get a positive spin with stories about valiant rescues.
As one writer explains, Cuban reporters are told to stick to the basics: the environment, the revolution, the Third World and the evils of imperialism. ###