Devoid of Internet and cable TV, people in Cuba get by as best as they can. Newsagents don’t sell foreign newspapers. And if you want to be properly informed, the only way is to listen to the BBC from London, Radio Exterior from Spain, or the Voice of America, from the United States. And that’s it.
Over the last 50 years, the Castro brothers have put a fat lock on information. Zero sports from the Yankees. No news from abroad, if they criticize the Castros, or what is going on the island, even in the slightest. In the dollar stores, short wave radios have “mysteriously” disappeared.
But the regular Cuban in the street wants to learn what he doesn’t know, whatever way he can, even if he has to sacrifice his grub. One of the most lucrative businesses nowadays is to hire out a bunch of foreign TV channels for 10 CUC a month (250 pesos). In Cuba, this is called “renting out your antenna”. Or simply “the antenna”.
If you ask Roberto, he will tell you with a faint smile that “in the five years I have been hiring out the antenna, I have made enough money to buy my motorbike, refurbish my apartment, and eat meat every week.” And this, in a Cuba stuck in an endless Special Period, is plenty.
And, what’s more, he boasts of being well-informed. Usually, the program listings offered by those renting out the Cuban cable, are full of B movies, mediocre Mexican soaps, Spanish humour shows and baseball games from the Major Leagues.
But some offers include news programmes from Univision. “Some people only want to rent CNN in Spanish, ABC, NBC and ESPN. This sort of people pay double, 20 CUC a month”, states Roberto.
The antenna business is a sort of local Facebook, and it sprung up out of the strong desire – and need – for having an alternative to the highly-manipulated news fed on a daily basis by the regime. To avoid state television, which is generally boring and full of tired shows.
“It all begins when some friend or relative from the other side of the Florida Strait pays for a bundle of cable programs, preferably in Spanish. Then, the TV signal receptors are smuggled into Cuba. Once they are here, there are some people who make a living building rustic antenna dishes,” Roberto explains.
“When you have all the gear, that is, the receptor and the dish, then you begin to offer the private cable service to your neighbours. The demand is huge, because even if they are living it rough, many people would make sacrifices to see a different way of life.”
The owner of the antenna connects up all the houses using a coaxial wire. In Havana, you can find people in the business of renting out antenna who have more than 100 homes linked up.
You can do the math! No less than 1,000 CUC (25,000 pesos) a month. That is why, despite the joint efforts by the Cuban intelligence and the police to curb the boom in private antennas, they have achieved little. If they catch you, they can fine you up to 30,000 pesos (1,250 CUC). And if you are a repeat offender, you can even go to jail for up to two years.
But it is a good business, and people like Roberto take the risk. There are hundreds of anecdotes to tell, such as a firefighting station, whose staff enjoy free cable TV in return for their silence.
The regular Cuban on the street wants to be informed and entertained. He doesn’t mind if he doesn’t have pork or vegetables on the table. It is worth it to sacrifice them to watch, with his very own eyes, what is happening on the other side.
And frequently they find out what happens in their own country through the foreign media. When there is no internet and foreign media, the business of hiring out antennas is a sort of social network. The Cuban Facebook.
Translated by: trelex
Photo: Reuters. On the right, the Cuban writer and journalist Natalia Bolivar
With the arrival of the first serious cold front, which in these days of January has lowered the thermometer to unusual temperatures in Cuba, the babalaos of the island gave the expected Letter of the Year.
This time it was announced with a drum roll and cymbals. Friday the first of January, Radio Progreso, a broadcaster of national importance, gave the whole reading of the document issued by the Cuban Council of High Priests of Ifá.
According to the Cuban babalaos, this year the sign is Obesa, ruling Yemayá and accompanying Changó. On the island, the devotees of Afro-Cuban religions count in the millions. No one knows the number to a scientific certainty. But religious sincretism is so strong that it is common to see a Catholic who “makes himself a saint” and a Santero being married in the church.
One song from Adalberto Álvarez, who sings Afro-Cuban songs, says in its refrain, “There are people who believe in nothing and they go for consultations at the first light of day.” It’s true. Frowning Marxists from the Communist Party have their bean-tokens and at times “feed them” to the higher power.
It’s speculated that even Fidel Castro, since he was a boy, has a Haitian voodoo doctor. The government never has denied the rumors. But let’s get to the point. In the letter for 2010, the local babalaos offer their recommendations and advice.
In a cryptic reading they offer a series of adages from the signo, which Juan Carlos Ariosa, 25 years old, a young sculptor, believes interprets signs of the political diatribe towards the government. Luis Álvarez, a retired soldier, who, since his participation in the African wars has been a devotee, in capital letters, of Afro-Cuban religions, interprets everything just the opposite.
“It’s a good sign that the government gives the Letter of the Year official publicity. The Council of Priests is a group of patriots who support the Revolution. If you read the document carefully, you will come to that conclusion,” affirms Álvarez, elated, with her necklaces of green and yellow beads and a white hat.
Each to his own. And those who are desperate, because of the extended outcome of the economic and political situation in Cuba, think that the babalaos expressed a weak sign in a veiled way.
If Cubans know anything it’s how to read between the lines. Neither the Catholic church nor the Council of Priests has publicly and openly condemned the politics of the government. At least in the last 10 years.
It’s like a cat and mouse game. If you shut up, we give you space. And at least, in my assessment, a part of the religions on the island have made themselves complicit in this silence.
It’s not possible that the majority of common people think otherwise and the churches and temples don’t speak their minds. As far as the Afro-Cuban religions are concerned, in the last two decades, they have converted themselves into a prosperous business.
It’s become the mode to become a babalao to mount a throne and get hard currency. Hundreds of devotees from Spain, Switzerland, Japan and even Australia come to the country of sun and palms to be blessed. It’s not cheap. For a Cuban it costs a minimum of 10,000 pesos (400 CUCs), a year and a half’s salary for an engineer. For a foreigner it costs double.
Faithful practitioners are many. But some beliefs, like the Afro-Cuban ones, have degenerated and become commercialized. In any event, the announcement of the Letter of the Year always awakens great expectations.
In an ancient mansion dating from the beginning of the 20th century, in the Calzada of 10th of October between Josefina and Gertrudis, where on occasion the babalaos consult the saints, on the afternoon of January 3, a group of 20 to 30 people were trying to read, with anxiety, the Letter of the Year 2010.
Probably they had not heard Radio Progreso. Also, at the same time, some thousands of kilometers away, in Peru, the South American shamans predicted that the Venezuelan president was very sick and that Fidel Castro had a vague death that protected him. According to the Peruvian oracles, Castro could live for the years that he offered.
To confirm the validity of their prognostications, they gave the example that last year they said that Barack Obama would win the US elections. On the island, when people saw on Channel 23 in Miami the news of the religious leaders of Peru, many were astonished.
At least the Peruvians were daring and gave prophecies. The Cuban babalaos were neither one nor the other. You would have to continue reading them between the lines. Something anyone could do by reading the latest edition of Newsweek, where they predict that 2010 might be the last year on earth for Fidel Castro.
Translated by Regina
We wish all readers and their families the realization of all resolutions proposed for this year, and to Cuba, our homeland, we wish for a new beginning with tolerance, respect and a democratic conciliatory spirit, leaving behind the resentment that has blinded us for so long. From Havana, Cuba, a sincere hug from,
Iván García y Laritza Diversent
Translated by Tony de la Fuente