Live from Havana, It's Mesa Redonda!

Thanks to one show, an unprecedented amount of foreign news is airing in Cuba -- but it ain't Nightline yet

 

It was a night in October, and across the island of Cuba, John Lennon and Yoko Ono's antiwar anthem, "Give Peace a Chance," crackled out of the nation's television sets. It was the music bed for a video montage: United States military jets taking off, a ground-to-air missile blasting skyward, a small impoverished kid looking up, a crowd of demonstrators carrying signs. "All we are saaaaying," sang the hippie choir, "is give peace a chance...." Shades of 1969 and Vietnam. But this was 2001.

Ground zero for this flashback was the massive Cuban Institute of Radio and Television building in one of the highest points of central Havana. Up a curving staircase of very wide, cathedral-like stone stairs and into an expansive, chilly, high-ceiling studio with shiny black marble floor lay the set for Mesa Redonda (Round Table), Cuban state-run television's not-quite-nightly answer to ABC's Nightline. On top of a maroon-carpeted platform, four men and one woman sat around three rectangular tables arranged in the shape of a U. On two sides there was a backdrop of cheap-looking teak-colored plywood walls. A studio audience of about 80 people looked on from several rows of folding chairs. Just off one end of the set a small crew was deployed with three large TV cameras. And with a tres, dos, uno from the director, the roughly one-hour-and-thirty-minute show began.

The Mesa Redonda set, where international capitalist news bureau meets Cuban politburo
The Mesa Redonda set, where international capitalist news bureau meets Cuban politburo

6:35 p.m. Cut to closeup of a 32-year-old dark-haired man with receding hairline and Eighties-style eyeglasses looking sternly into the camera. He is wearing a gray suit jacket, white shirt, and maroon tie. "The U.S. war against Afghanistan," he began. "This has been one of heaviest days of bombing yet." He is Mesa Redonda host Randy Alonso. First he delivered a dispatch from EFE, the Spanish wire service, reporting that B-1 and B-52 bombers had launched cluster bombs against the Taliban. "The U.S. Air Force and Navy have focused their air attacks on military installations and concentrations of Taliban troops," Alonso read. Cluster bombs cost $10,000 each and release up to 150 highly explosive bomblets. The International Committee of Red Cross had called for a ban on cluster bombs, because the bomblets sometimes do not explode until long after a war is over. Moreover, the report continued, a Red Cross spokesman said cluster bombs are 4.9 percent more likely to kill or injure children than landmines. "Children are especially at risk from cluster bombs, because they are drawn to their little yellow parachutes," Alonso quoted. (The cluster bomb outrage story did not hit major U.S. news media until several weeks later.)

Five minutes into the program Alonso segued into the first media incursion from the Great Enemy Country, from one of the heaviest perpetrators of U.S. cultural imperialism on the globe: CNN. The CNN en Español report summarized the day's military action in Afghanistan. The commentators and studio audience viewed it from a monitor. "Lower!" yelled the director, an elderly man wearing earphones and a microphone headset and clad in an orange, black, and tan shirt. "One-twenty," he soon shouted, referring to the time left in the segment.

After that report Alonso settled into an article that had appeared a day earlier in the Mexican daily La Jornada. The piece, datelined Washington and New York (and written by Jim Cason and David Brooks), cast doubt on U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's claims about the accuracy of so-called smart bombs. It followed reports that a cruise missile hit a United Nations building in Kabul, killing four employees. "During the Gulf War the Pentagon insisted that its famous Tomahawk missiles had a success rate of 85 percent," Alonso recited from the article. "But an internal investigation by the U.S. government released after the conflict confirmed that only half of those weapons hit their intended target. Seventy percent of the 85,500 tons of bombs that fell over Iraq and occupied Kuwait didn't hit their target, according to Pentagon officials quoted by the Washington Post in memos published after the end of the Gulf War." Alonso then read a quote in the story from Mark Crispin Miller, a New York University professor and author of a book about the Gulf War: "It was, in fact, propaganda, and all these weapons systems operated poorly, in some cases much worse, than what we were informed at the time.'"

But it became increasingly clear that propaganda promulgation was a divided ideological highway. It was a half-hour into the program, and viewers had not yet heard from one commentator who supported the U.S. war effort. The only ones who had spoken were Alonso and Lazaro Barredo, a columnist for the weekly Trabajadores (Workers) newspaper and a representative of the National Assembly of the People's Power. And yet with fragments of capitalist news media flowing from the Mesa Redonda set, the show was proving to be darn informative when one filtered out the opinion-making.

7:00 p.m. Barredo was wrapping up a twenty-minute critique of the U.S. military campaign. "In the coming weeks we're going to know how many deaths have occurred," he suspected, as the studio director orchestrated some file footage of stealth bombers on to the nation's TV screens. He called the war an example of "modernism against barbarism" but almost wistfully predicted that a guerrilla war could present "a complicated situation" for the United States. Then Alonso introduced a report from another citadel of U.S. media imperialism: ABC. This one covered the refugee situation and featured a spokesman from Oxfam, the British-based humanitarian aid group.

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