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Cubans Defy Cable TV Ban

Illegal satellite dishes and cable networks make for more entertaining viewing than Cuban state TV.
By Carlos Rodríguez, Carlos Ríos Otero

Cable and satellite TV are illegal in Cuba, but its popularity suggests viewers are undeterred by the prospect of large fines.

Vivian, 32, says she is glued to foreign television channels from the start of the afternoon soap operas start until the six o’clock news.

At eight in the evening, she sits down again to watch the next round of soaps.

“My husband complains a bit because I don’t let him watch the sports and I avoid the kitchen,” Vivian said. “Evenings are my favourite, as I watch the soap operas with some friends who can’t afford to pay for the service.”

Vivian described the variety on foreign TV channels as “fantastic”.

“It’s worth taking the risk to have a place of amusement and entertainment,” she said.

Although the Cuban government allows tourists and diplomats to watch TV foreign channels, satellite and cable remain illegal for the rest of the population.

An article in the official Granma newspaper made the government’s position clear, warning of the “destabilising and interfering messages” transmitted by cable and satellite stations.

In fact, the most-viewed shows are not about politics; they are drama serials and entertainment shows from Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela. The most popular channels are the Spanish-language channels Univisión and Telemundo.

Installing the technology to watch them is illegal but easy enough. There are two basic connection methods. For satellite, a dish has to be fitted, properly aligned, and configured with decoder cards, which are often brought in by Cuban Americans on visits.

Cable TV is laid on by similar private operators in the black economy, who source the coaxial cable from public-sector employees with access to it. Then they run the cables through residential block, laying them parallel to existing power or phone lines where possible, and even underground along water mains or sewers.

The initial connection fee for cable TV is steep at 250 pesos, which at ten US dollars is more than half the average monthly wage in Cuba. After that, subscribers pay a weekly charge of 50 pesos.

Subscriber Mercedes, 35, paid the hefty charges, and does not regret it.

“It’s expensive, but it’s worth it as the official programmes are boring and there’s little variety,” she said.

The risks are high for anyone who is caught. According to the newspaper Granma, two people were given two years in prison for setting up a satellite TV connection.

Javier runs an illegal cable network, and says that users as well as those who install the technology can face punitive fines.

“I have friends who have been fined for illegally distributing foreign television,” he said. “The owner of the [receiver] apparatus provides the signal] is fined 30,000 pesos [1,200 dollars] plus anything they are suspected of buying with the proceeds – televisions, washing machines, air conditioning… Residents who are caught with cable in their homes are fined 10,000 pesos.”

The authorities send teams of workers round to remove illegal satellite and cable equipment. These days, they come with cranes so they can access apartment blocks from the roof, because residents refuse to let them in and shout warnings to their neighbours when they see them coming.

On one occasion, illegal cable installers turned up at an address in Havana’s old town area and were shocked to find a police lieutenant sitting in the kitchen. But he told them, “Relax, I’m the one with the dollars; I’m the breadwinner in this house. And you’ll be safer here than anywhere else. My partner loves Mexican soaps.”

(Names changed or withheld for security reasons.)

Carlos Rodríguez is the pseudonym of a journalist in Cuba. Carlos Ríos Otero is an independent journalist reporting from Havana and a member of the Press Freedom Association in Cuba.

This story was first published on IWPR’s website.

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