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CUBA: TV Serial Stirs Up Social Controversy

Orlando Matos

HAVANA, Apr 17 2006 (IPS) - A television series which reflects on and portrays sexual behaviours and touches on the question of AIDS has provoked unusual public controversy in Cuba.

Amanda, an uninformed, sexually precocious teenager under the strict control of her parents, becomes infected with HIV, the AIDS virus. The central character in one of the series’ episodes, her story drew a negative reaction from quite a number of viewers of the prime time show.

Josefa Rodríguez was more indignant about the programme showing youngsters who are “virtually children sleeping together,” than over its references to AIDS itself. It seems to offer “an invitation” to teenage sex, the 47-year-old Havana telephone company technician told IPS.

Rodríguez was not concerned about the scenes of violence that her 11-year-old son watches on a daily basis in the films the family rents from a privately-run video club. But she was alarmed because the second part of the television series included the story of a bisexual relationship.

The public is judging the series, entitled “La cara oculta de la luna” (“The Dark Side of the Moon”), by its social implications, rather than its artistic merit.

According to actress Lourdes Suárez, director of the Espejos (“Mirrors”) Project that puts on performances to promote AIDS prevention and social acceptance of people living with HIV, “the soap opera works,” and “young people relate to it.” The television show “doesn’t encourage them to indulge in inappropriate behaviour; on the contrary, it warns them about the virus,” she told IPS.

The series has focused on problems facing Cuban society, with AIDS as a linking theme. In response to public concern, Cuban television authorities decided to air the evening programme one hour later.

The state-controlled national media reported on the public’s adverse opinions about the programme, but have defended the social role that television plays in Cuba.

Cuba’s second most important daily newspaper, Juventud Rebelde, saw the “expansion of the debate to all sectors of society” as “positive.” It defended the expression of a broad variety of opinions and viewpoints, reporting criticisms voiced by local government officials in an inland region of the island.

These officials had deplored “programmes of this nature,” that are very different from those usually transmitted on national television with their “political and educational messages in accordance with our revolutionary principles.”

“People have an incredible capacity for self-censorship,” historian Abel Sierra told IPS. Sierra is the author of the report “From the other side of the looking glass: sexuality in the construction of the Cuban nation,” which won the Casa de las Américas prize this year in the socio-historical essay category.

The people of Cuba “don’t want to discuss openly” subjects like those portrayed in the television series, and if these are also shown very frankly, people react with a sense of rejection. Nevertheless, “reality is harsher than the television plots” because, according to research findings, “young people are increasingly sexually precocious,” Sierra said.

Given this context, it is significant that the official media have provided a sounding-board for discussion, since this country is described as lacking “a culture of debate,” even by some Cuban thinkers who support the government’s socialist ideology.

That perception, according to historian Pedro Pablo Rodríguez, arises from the fact that certain issues are often absent from the public debate.

He expressed that viewpoint in Temas magazine, a Cuban publication on culture, ideology and society which promotes debates between experts, academics, intellectuals and members of the public who regularly attend these encounters, held on the last Thursday of each month.

In the same edition, sociologist Mayra Espina argued that “there isn’t enough openness” for discussion, “because the political design” of the island “is too authoritarian,” so that controversy “is restricted to minor matters.”

Cuba has the lowest HIV rate in Latin America – 0.07 percent in the 15 to 24 age category. Nevertheless, experts point out that the number of cases has increased among women and bisexual men.

Magda González, a Cuban television official, said that the decision to produce “The Dark Side of the Moon” took into account the state of the epidemic in the country. “AIDS continues to spread, and high-risk behaviour, such as promiscuity and an irresponsible approach to sexuality, is widespread,” she said.

Sierra appreciates the promotion of the debate in the media, because “these topics haven’t been discussed like this for a long time.” However, she believes it is necessary “to avoid the tendency towards sensationalism, and to involve specialists and academics who can project more discerning and professional views,” for the good of teenagers and adults alike.

In Suárez’s view, “the theme of AIDS and young people is addressed in an appropriate manner in the programme.”

“I have done performances in poor neighbourhoods in Havana, in which the audience has believed me to be HIV-positive, and that’s when the interaction with people’s concerns and questions has been the greatest,” the actress related.

The programme is apparently popular with young people, and watching it before bedtime has been made obligatory at some pre-university boarding schools. But that will now be affected by the rescheduling to a later airing time.

Another episode, based on the relationship between a married man and a gay man, was also controversial in a culture that tends to be homophobic and “machista”. “Everybody criticises it, but everybody watches it,” Josefa Rodríguez commented.

Writer Reynaldo González told IPS that viewers’ loyalty to the programme is basically due to “an addiction created by reiteration” in cliffhanger media serials. “This habit does exist in Cuba,” said the author of “Llorar es un placer” (“Crying is a Pleasure”), which is about melodrama as a genre since radio serials or “culebrones” were first introduced on Cuban radio.

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