By JOHN RICE | Associated Press Writer
HAVANA—The U.S. government believes Cubans should see more of America on television, and for years, Cubans have been happily complying—cobbling together clandestine satellite systems to pick up everything from the World Series to soap operas. No longer. Most of these systems have been silenced—not by Fidel Castro but by an American company’s war on TV piracy.
“We’re sad because we cannot reach our people with so much happiness,” said Crystal Larraondo, executive assistant for Los Fonomemecos, the Miami-based Cuban-American comedy team whose show was popular here.
In late April, DirecTV, based in El Segundo, Calif., changed its decoder cards to halt widespread piracy in the United States.
By chance, it knocked out most of Cuba’s pirates too.
Hans de Salas, research associate at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American studies, called it “an unexpected gift for the Castro government.”
But DirecTV had no choice but to go by the book, said Robert G. Mercer, its public relations director.
“While we understand they have a different motivation than the individuals who are stealing our signal in the U.S., they are still receiving our programming without our authorization and in a part of the world where we do not have a license to operate,” he told The Associated Press.
“We have an obligation to our legitimate customers and programming partners to target and take off-line anyone who is using an illegally modified access card,” he said.
The few Cubans who use the Dish TV system of U.S.-based EchoStar aren’t yet affected, and EchoStar spokesman Steve Cox wouldn’t reveal details about possible security updates there. Shifting from DirecTV to Dish would require a different decoder box—one of the hardest pieces of TV hardware to obtain here.
The U.S. government’s Office of Cuba Broadcasting targets the island with its own station, Television Marti, but its broadcasts are jammed by Castro’s regime. It tried the satellite route, but few Cubans can pick up its signals, which use a different technology and satellite from those used by DirecTV.
On May 6, President Bush promised $18 million to transmit TV Marti from a U.S. military aircraft—a measure that a commentator on Cuban state television described as a “prologue to war.”
Official Cuba also has a term for vehemently anti-communist material beamed at the island—“media terrorism.”
Anecdotal reports speak of about 10,000 satellite television dishes in Cuba, according to Joe O’Connell, spokesman for the U.S. government’s International Broadcasting Bureau, which oversees Television Marti, among other operations.
Dishes serve entire families and extension lines sometimes connect them to neighboring houses. Taped programs renting for about 25 cents reach a still larger audience.
The government is determined to confine Cubans to the state broadcasting system, where Thursday night’s 90-minute discussion show was devoted to “Cuba confronting the fascist policies of Bush.”
Few Cubans will talk openly about the dishes: They’re strictly banned for homes and police sometimes raid them to confiscate illegal antennas and fine their owners.
Yet enough money trickles into private hands from tourism and family abroad to finance a multimillion-dollar hidden TV industry.
It includes building or smuggling in satellite dishes, counterfeiting access cards, renting lines to neighbors and going door to door renting and collecting tapes of popular shows.
An antenna, decoder and counterfeited access card cost $700 to $1,200, depending on scarcity, according to several Cubans who have bought or sold them. That limits the dishes to those with a healthy supply of dollars. A typical Cuban makes about $20 a month.
A man who says he has installed 95 satellite dishes showed a reporter one hidden in a rooftop water tank. From there, he pointed to neighboring houses, counting nine other hidden dishes.
Cubans say they have seen antennas concealed behind apartment windows, in air conditioner boxes, even in a pigsty.