FORO CUBANO Vol 3, No. 22 – TEMA: ARTE Y LITERATURA –
The Official Narrative of Brotherhood vs. the Cuban Public Talking Back on the Small Screen
Por: Lina Jardines del Cueto, Ph.D*
*Phd Literature and Modern Languages (Miami University), MA International Relations & BA History (University of Havana). Her research focuses on political-cultural exchange between Cuba and the Middle East, migration, as well as topics related to Muslim culture.
Since 1959, the education of the Cuban people has been a priority on the government’s political agenda, and various actions have been taken to raise the educational level of the people throughout the 60 years of the revolution. One of the projects with the most impact was the Literacy Campaign (1960-1961), but years later, in 2000 with the Battle of Ideas, when a crisis of shortage of teachers shook the educational system, the project University for All (Universidad para Todos) (Juventud Rebelde, 2009), started. With the help of professionals and specialists from different spheres of education, the socialization of knowledge began in digital media spaces such as TV. Televised classes (teleclases) and tabloids with the contents of the courses, were put at the disposal of the entire population to continue expanding the comprehensive general culture to the Cuban hombre nuevo.
Media, especially television considered as a “hegemonic device” (Martín B, 1998, p. 96), possess a significant position in soft power and if the Cuban people are approaching Middle Eastern culture, the government tries to encourage historical knowledge and create awareness about it. It is interesting to note that in 2009, as part of the educational programs of Universidad para Todos, a course entitled “What happened in the Middle East? History of a world” was televised (see fig. 1). A professor from the University of Havana, Reinaldo Sanchez Porro, appeared on Cubavision’ and Educative 1’ channel Tuesday and Friday at 7:00 A.M., to teach the course that was composed of 32 lectures. Among the topics addressed were the emergence of Islamic Arab identity; the ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity of the region; the tendencies of Arab nationalism; the creation of Israel, and the Palestinian situation (see fig. 2). State media, the only one allowed in Cuba, tried to inform the public about the Middle East and that’s why geography, history of the region, and a marked anti-imperialist and Zionist approach were some of the elements that stood out the most. The same issues that were addressed in the revolutionary posters of the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (OSPAAAL), were presented but now with a historical and nationalist approach.
These classes were designed for secondary students who had to unwillingly attend school at 7 AM to observe the course. Despite its obligatory nature as part of required educational activities, the reception of the course by the public (according to my own experience) was so positive that people of different ages (45-70 years mostly) joined voluntarily as viewers. The success of the course was due to the novel content that was examined and to the personality of the teacher in charge, who knew how to overcome the barriers of television and reach the public. The achievement was reflected in the National Television Festival which recognized for the first time with a prize, the course “What happened in the Middle East? History of a world” and by extension the Universidad para Todos’ project.
Despite the high level of Cuban education, most of the Cuban population ignore this culture and religion. So, how can the televised classes about Middle Eastern history be interpreted? I argue that these classes were not only a consequence of a decrease in the number of teachers, but also were an effort to bring to Cuban’ homes the history and culture of the Middle East, “a political way of maintaining or modifying the adequacy of discourses, with the knowledge and powers that they imply” (Foucault,1999, p. 45). This course specifically, can be considered a helpful propaganda mechanism, and a way to spread historical and cultural knowledge about what I call the new economic partners of the government, Arab nations.
Although the state media channels reproduce and promote historical programs like the televised classes mentioned above, the famous humoristic program Vivir del Cuento has not remained indifferent to the new cultural influences and to the rise in conversions to Islam. This show, which emerged in 2008, is considered a social thermometer where viewers identify with the characters or situations presented and where they see the real problems of the island reflected. This mediascape project has become a space of criticism and entertainment necessary for Cubans and the government as evidenced by the fact that it has prime time (9-9:30 PM) evening programming on the Cubavision channel and the few results available from the Center for Social Research. The statistics of the research center show that in April 2013 the humoristic program had a TV audience rate of 67.4% and an acceptance rate of 94.5%; while in 2014 it was the most viewed program with 72% (EcuRed, 2019; Lescaille, 2019).
What interests me regarding this program is a specific episode that aired in June 2013 entitled El Árabe. In this episode, the characters Pánfilo and Chequera decide to act as Arab and Muslim in front of a Muslim visitor who wants to find a family that maintains Arab traditions and let them inherit an oil field. Pánfilo refuses at first but then decides to do it only to buy a washing machine (see fig. 3 and 4). So, they decide to pass themselves off as that family and name themselves Pánfilo Mohamed Alcara and Chequera Hassan Rabin to be able to buy the washing machine that Pánfilo wants so much.
When the Arab guest arrives, they do the corresponding presentations where the only thing pronounced in Arabic was the greeting (see fig. 5). Then the cultural activity (Cuban folk dance and Belly dance) began because it is something that in Cuba is always done when someone from another culture comes. The guest brings them a gift: a lamp like Aladdin’s but without the Genie of the Lamp, only as a decorative object; so, the new converts were disappointed.
The visitor wants to know about the culture of this family and asked about the harem to see if they maintain the tradition. Quickly, the harem was formed with the women waiting for the ground beef in the bodega. After this, the narrative takes a turn and focuses on an oil locator that incredibly emits a signal indicating that an oil deposit was in the living room of Pánfilo’s house. Immediately the perforations began but the supposed sediment was the sewage water. The episode ends when the Muslims undress in annoyance, proving that they were not Arabs; the guest feels offended and leaves refusing to help them with the washing machine.
Such a satirical program that was inspired by Cuban reality allows me to consider the religious conversion motivated in some cases by economic interests. Its influence is controversial because a stereotype of Cuban Muslims was created and their religiosity was questioned since the actors —Pánfilo and Chequera— were able to dress and even change their name in front of the Arab foreigner to obtain a gift in cash. The fact that this problem was already in television helps to spread misconceptions and generalize the reasons for religious conversion.
According to the screenwriter of the program, Jaime Fort, “at the time of writing the script I make sure that the story revolves around a current topic, then I try to make sure that all references on that topic are true because you cannot invent unreal things” (Suzarte, 2019). The story in this episode is very similar and there are clear similarities with the governmental procedure after the arrival of a diplomat to Cuba where a cultural activity always is included. Then, the humoristic show exposes two different situations. While the state constructs a narrative of brotherhood and Arab solidarity, the humorous program deconstructs the narrative making reference to the economic conversions, creating not only tensions with the government but also a snowball effect.
Therefore, these two examples of programs show different elements (didactic vs. entertainment) that are interconnected. On the one hand, the course about the Middle East illustrates how the official channels promoted knowledge and culture about that region and in specific countries with close ties and transatlantic connections with the government. While on the other hand, the humoristic program and the specific episode analyzed is a way of questioning the links between the Cubans and the foreign Muslims along with their cultural-economic exchanges; the program is an instance of the Cuban public talking back to the state project of fomenting ties with target countries which invest in Cuba and make material donations.
 The Cuban government has used this expression since 2000 with the fight for the return of the child Elián González to Cuba and then the term was redirected to expand access to education and culture.
 In general, television stations produce programs, but in this case, the project for the University for All resulted, two years later, in the creation of the Educational Channel 1 and its slogan ‘Where you always learn’.
 This course was broadcast by the TeleRebelde Channel at 10:00 on the night of the air days in the morning.
 It was impossible to obtain concrete data (audiences and ratings) from Social Research Center (CIS) of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television.
EcuRed. (2019). “Vivir del Cuento”. Available in: www.ecured.cu/Vivir_del_Cuento
Foucault, M. (1999). “El orden del discurso”. Tusquets Editores.
Juventud Rebelde. (2009). “Universidad para Todos reinicia sus actividades con la transmisión de seis nuevos cursos”. September 3, 2009. Available in: www.juventudrebelde.cu/cuba/2009-09-03/universidad-para-todos-reinicia-sus-actividades-con-la-transmision-de-seis-nuevos-cursos
Lescaille Rabell, A. (2019). “¿Es tan mala nuestra televisión?”. Available in: CubAhora, www.cubahora.cu/sociedad/es-tan-mala-nuestra-television
Martín B., J. & Convenio Andrés Bello. (1998). “De Los Medios a Las Mediaciones: comunicación, Cultura y hegemonía”. Fifth ed., Convenio Andrés Bello.
Suzarte Medina, S. (2019). “Vivir del cuento refleja la realidad cubana con sinceridad”. Portal de la Televisión Cubana, July 31, 2018. Available in: www.tvcubana.icrt.cu/destacados/3772-vivir-del-cuento-refleja-la-realidad-cubana-con-sinceridad