Americans will soon be able to watch Cuban TV from their living rooms

Luis Silva (center) is the actor who plays the main role of Panfilo in Vivir del Cuento, the most popular and sometimes politically-tinged comedy show in Cuba.
Luis Silva (center) is the actor who plays the main role of Panfilo in Vivir del Cuento, the most popular and sometimes politically-tinged comedy show in Cuba. Courtesy

Most Cubans on the island prefer television series and movies made in the United States to escape a state-controlled television system they deem as boring, but one new U.S. channel will become the first totally dedicated to transmitting programs made in Cuba.

CubaMax TV will carry not just programs produced by state TV but also will transmit a broad range of movies and documentaries, many of them created independently by Cubans on the island and around the world, said Miguel Martín López, a representative of Idaobex Living, which acquired the rights to the Cuban content.

The satellite channel, which will transmit 24 hours a day, seeks to be “a window on Cuban culture,” said Alfredo Rodríguez, vice president of DishLatino, which has the exclusive rights to carry the channel starting this week.

CubaMax TV “allows the discovery of all Cuban culture at the level of audiovisuals because, even though people don’t know it, Cuba produces many telenovelas, series for kids and teenagers, and this is a different way to look at Cuba,” Martín told el Nuevo Herald.

“It is a culturally open product that crosses borders. It’s not just Cuba but also Miami and any person who wants to [make a program] can do it,” he added, announcing that Cuban artists in Miami already have contacted the channel to provide programs with local content. “That’s also the idea of the channel, and it’s an idea that was very well received because it establishes a bridge between the two cultures.”

CubaMax TV and DishLatino will celebrate the start of the transmissions with a private reception Thursday night at the Olympia Theater with a guest appearance by Luis Silva, the actor who plays the main role of Panfilo in Vivir del Cuento, the most popular and sometimes politically tinged comedy show on the island.

The title for Thursday’s event: “From Havana to Little Havana.”

Experts said it was only a matter of time before media companies show interest in the distribution of Cuban cultural productions in the U.S., particularly with the avalanche of celebrities rushing to the island after nearly half a century of estrangement between the two countries.

“This opportunity comes at an interesting time for filmmakers in Cuba, when we can appreciate much better the corpus of films made outside the official industry, through mechanisms of production and distribution absolutely new to the country,” said Cuba-based film critic Juan Antonio García Borrero.

García Borrero noted that the existence of this new TV channel would also help to build a “more direct and transparent relationship between the two countries.”

Idaobex Living, a Spanish company that buys and sells the rights to audiovisual content, created a U.S. branch that will administer the channel, under the direction of well-known Cuban actress Amarilys Nuñez.

Martín said that 60 percent of the channel’s content comes from RTV Comercial, the state agency that markets Cuba’s audiovisual products. The rest are documentaries that, for example, have been shown at festivals for young Cuban filmmakers, or movies, many of them filmed outside the control of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry and even outside the island.

Rodríguez said his company has all the permits required to transmit the content produced in Cuba. The company has 14 million U.S. subscribers and carries about 250 channels with international programming. DishLatino, Rodríguez said, leads the market of English and Spanish television “packages.”

Although Cuban television still generally transmits with standard definition, the latest telenovela acquired for the new channel, Latidos Compartidos — or Shared Heartbeats — was produced in high definition in 2015.

Martín added that CubaMax TV already has obtained the rights to 200 Cuban movies, and its daily programming will include two movies and up to three telenovelas per day.

Cuban filmmaker Ian Padrón, who now lives in South Florida, said that while the new channel might bring “a little more exposure” to Cuban directors who live on the island, the channel will have to reinvest the profits in new productions in order to make an impact.

“If there are not a lot of new productions, a channel can transmit all the Cuban programming of the last five years in just three or four months, and then it will start to show Cuban movie classics and archival materials,” he said.

U.S. embargo laws, however, bar the advance financing of such projects in Cuba. Idaobex Living can only buy them once they are finished, said Martín of Idaobex Living.

Channel’s focus: entertainment, culture

The promoters of the new channel insisted that the content will not be political.

“The channel will not carry news. It will be pure entertainment and nothing more,” Rodríguez said. “There are no ideological programs. That is something we are stressing in our advertising.”

But audiences may read politics into some of what they see.

The Cuban government has been highly effective at injecting propaganda and ideology into state-controlled products, including literature, movies and especially television programs, but some directors, writers and others have managed to slip criticisms of the Cuban reality into their work, provoking some high-profile cases of censorship.

The most popular comedy program on the island, Vivir del Cuento — Living by One’s Wit — where President Barack Obama made an appearance when he visited Havana in March, has won big audiences for its sharp criticisms of the economy, the absurd bureaucracy and the vulnerability of elderly Cubans who depend on meager state pensions. The show will be carried by CubaMax TV.

“It has a very special kind of humor, which can be said to be critical, to open the eyes of the Cubans,” Rodríguez said.

Martín said his company will “filter the content” with “a lot of care to avoid offending anyone.” At the same time, he added, “we have included documentaries on Los Aldeanos, a rap duo critical of the government, as well as “independent documentaries.”

The vice president of DishLatino also said the channel will be an opportunity to show the world the artistic talent on the island, and especially its musicians. He praised the quality of the music videos he watched during the test period and praised artists who “are ready for prime time.” The channel will also transmit Sonando en CubaPopular in Cuba — a singing contest along the lines of American Idol and The Voice.

Many of the company’s channels are aimed at specific markets or foreign audiences that keep in contact with their home countries by television and other media.

Rodríguez said CubaMax TV is not directed at Cubans alone, but at Hispanics in general and anyone else who “is interested or curious” about the island.

But Martín said one key audience will be the new wave of Cubans that started in 2000. Part of the channel’s attraction will be its appeal to “nostalgia” and the possibility of seeing actors they recognize while also watching — for the first time — the same programs that their relatives on the island have seen.

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