The subversive screen

Broadcasting Modernity: Cuban Commercial Television, 1950–1960
Yeidy M Rivero
2015, Duke University Press
252 pages, plates, paperback

FIDEL CASTRO loved to talk – and Cuban television stations spent much of the first year of the country’s revolution allowing him to do so.

The highly popular leader of the movement that had overthrown Batista and was bringing dignity back to a weakened colonial society that was not yet being steered in the direction of socialism was a TV natural.

Yeidy Rivero’s fascinating research reveals that the former Comandante appeared on the country’s 365,000 domestic television screens from one to eight times per month, in interviews lasting from 30 minutes to six hours.

Commercial television was seen as a valuable tool by the country’s nascent revolutionary regime and owners of the networks provided the new leader with an open platform, understanding instinctively his ability to boost ratings while also demonstrating their political support for him.

Rivero suggests that media advocates pressed for his extended appearances on television, and Castro himself saw great value in this, requesting unlimited on-air time to discuss political issues such as agrarian reform, unemployment, political asylum, Latin American dictatorships, Cuba’s foreign relations and his attitudes towards the US.

The author quotes a US Foreign Broadcast Information Service journalist as saying: “[Fidel Castro] appears literally capable of talking forever, on any subject under the sun. He is a dynamic, forceful speaker, with that rare quality of fixing and swaying his audience regardless of the contents of his words.” [p 144]

Ratings data from the time uncovered by Rivero gives a fascinating insight into the charismatic young leader’s huge popularity. On his return from a trip to the US and Latin America, for example, Castro turned up announced to appear on the Telemundo pregunta show beginning at 8pm, which began the broadcast with ratings of 12 points. By 10pm – two hours into a marathon six-hour performance – this had soared to 50 points. Data suggests also that the vast majority of people tuning in were either the poor and marginalised or the middle classes, with the upper classes turning their backs on their new leader – and more than 50% of viewers were women, with men and children making up the rest.

The author argues that live television offered an ideal media outlet for Castro, as he skilfully managed the merger of television imagery and political performance using his sharp intelligence, energy and improvisational skills. There seems little doubt that similar use of this medium was made much later by the Venezuelan revolutionary leader Hugo Chávez, who hosted his own, unscripted, talkshow Aló Presidente on state television and radio without any scheduled ending time.

There is also little doubt that the Cuban Revolutionary regime was fully aware of the propaganda value offered by television, and how they could create through it a highly appealing new revolutionary iconography that would help to legitimise and popularise a project becoming progressively more radical.

The great advantage of television was that it humanised the leader and his entourage and allowed them to speak directly to people’s lived experiences with every tick and inflection that allowed for meaningful empathy.

Never was this more so than following Castro’s dramatic resignation as prime minister on 17 July 1950 after a series of disputes with the liberal president Manuel Urrutia over how the revolution, still in its early days, should unfold. Castro’s great skill at immediately using television to explain his decision and to nurture an aura of national drama and expectation explains why Urrutia resigned just hours after the broadcast. It was political manoeuvring of the most public kind – and devastatingly effective.

Similarly, televised speeches in which Castro, often flanked by members of his cabinet, spoke to large crowds were also highly persuasive opportunities to magnify the Cuban leader’s role as central to the island’s revolutionary modernity.

The author assesses this phenomenon by inserting it into broader questions of national modernisation in which the regime would ultimately fashion an entirely new, socialist model of television following nationalisation. Rivero writes: “Detached from associations with US capitalism and liberal ideas of democracy, Fidel Castro began to construct a new vision of modernity and Cubanness. In this process of redefinition, Cuban television … was born again. The spectacles of revolution prepared the terrain for the new ‘architecture of power’ … that was forming in 1960 when Castro embraced socialism, and a new external force – the USSR – stepped onto Cuba’s stage.” [p162]

However, the Castro years are only one aspect of Broadcasting Modernity, in which Rivero explores the birth and development of commercial television in Cuba throughout a dramatic decade.

The author provides a fascinating insight into the role of television in shaping Cuban identity and visions of modernity that offers a way to examine broader theoretical questions about how this medium functions in society during times of radical and social transformation.