Vanessa Bauza | [url=http://www.sun-sentinel.com]http://www.sun-sentinel.com[/url]
HAVANA · From his Olivetti typewriter, illuminated by a bare fluorescent bulb in a corner of his bedroom, Joaquín Cuartas weaves the tales that titillate Cuba.
His radio soap operas have spiced up the airwaves for 35 years, transporting audiences into imaginary worlds of impossible romance and tangled betrayals. As prolific as he is popular, Cuartas has churned out about 200 radionovelas, both originals and adaptations, since 1969.
Where does he find inspiration?
“It’s very easy; I go to the refrigerator and if it’s empty I get inspired,” he said, relishing his own punch line with an easy, self-deprecating laugh. “The hardest part for me is when I finish a novela and I have to abandon the characters.”
His current melodrama, Croníca Social, or Social Chronicle, is set in pre-revolutionary Cuba and filled with the time tested staples of a successful soap: A rich daughter falls for her father’s chauffer. Their love child is cast out of the family and adopted by a charismatic gay man. Intrigue and vengeance ensue.
It isn’t the stuff of high literature, but the story is told with tenderness as “a song to brotherhood, to life,” said Cuartas, 66, from his modest living room, which had been stripped of furniture for repairs, in the working class Havana suburb of Lawton.
Above all, his goal is to entertain and offer listeners an escape from the daily grind and economic shortages.
“In this difficult, difficult situation if you can give people a little distraction, a little happiness, you feel like a god,” Cuartas said.
“A good-natured god.”
Cuba pioneered the radionovela in the 1930s, when it became the first Latin American country to adopt the U.S. marketing model that linked popular radio programs to commercial sponsors such as detergent companies.
In the 1940s and ‘50s Cuban scripts, actors and technical expertise were exported to neighboring Latin American countries, infusing what began as a U.S. innovation with “local flavor,” said Antonio La Pastina, communications professor at Texas A&M University, who has written on Latin America’s soap operas.
Cuba’s leading role as soap central came to a halt after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, when commercial stations were nationalized and Cubans got to the task of remaking their society.
Today, Radio Progreso, Cuba’s most popular soap station, airs nine radionovelas each day, including romances, detective stories, Cuban historical fiction, international classics and translated favorites by such writers as Agatha Christie and Sidney Sheldon. Each 15- to 25-minute episode costs about 500 pesos, or $19, to produce, and is commercial free, so as “not to promote consumerism,” said Manuel Andres Mazorra, director of Radio Progreso, which is funded and controlled by the Cuban government.
Around the world, some radio soap operas have shed their sudsy shallowness to raise awareness of gender equality, domestic violence and HIV prevention.
In Cuba, mentions of current social problems such as drug addiction, housing shortages and poorly stocked pharmacies have at times been written into radionovelas with an eye toward constructive criticism.
“There are no taboo topics, including social topics which have to do with our economic reality,” Andres Mazorra said. “It’s not criticism for the sake of criticizing, but rather something that makes you think.”
A 200-episode script such as Social Chronicle sells for about $1,100. Actors are paid just over a $1 per segment and often rehearse and record several different shows a day in studios with sonorous props like squeaky gates and crinkly plastic.
Veteran radio actor Alicia Fernández, 74, is currently juggling three characters: a grouchy grandmother, a sadistic mother and a devoted friend.
“For me the radio has a lot of magic. Radio develops the imagination,” Fernández said.
Avid fans often tune in at work, and radionovela actors are treated like stars.
“You just have to say `Hello’ and people recognize you,” said actress Georgina Almanza, 71. “They talk to you about characters you don’t even remember anymore. Imagine how many characters I’ve played in 54 years.”
With his phone number listed in the book, Cuartas frequently gets calls from appreciative listeners, who offer their thanks, input and, on occasion, homemade treats. (During a recent interview one of his fans called to offer him doughnuts. Her gesture was “better than money,” he said.)
Cuartas, whose first love was theater, sometimes recasts a novela’s ending depending on feedback from listeners and the buzz on the streets. At times, he has written out characters because he didn’t like the way an actor interpreted the role.
Though some listeners try to coax him into giving away clues about his novelas’ final twists and turns, Cuartas, like a good magician, does not reveal his tricks.
“All of Cuba will cry from the emotion of it,” he teases about Social Chronicle’s upcoming conclusion.
“People will kiss and hug each other.”