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

Okay, so there was a lack of contrasting viewpoints, but did MR's relaying of so many foreign news stories indicate some kind of journalistic perestroika was poking a hole in the last socialist fortress in the Americas? In a country where Beatles music was once banned and possession of a CBS News videotape cause for suspicion?

Hoping to get a handle on Mesa Redonda, and on the state of Cuban journalism in general, New Times assembled Alonso, Barredo, and two other MR regulars -- Arleen Rodriguez, a radio and print journalist from Guantánamo; and Eduardo Dimas, a veteran television anchor -- for a roundtable aimed at answering that question. Our cordial escort from the Ministry of the Exterior, Roberto de Armas, mostly listened. The interview took place in a salon on the first floor of Protocolo 1, a mansion that serves as a "workhouse" of the Union of Communist Youth, in Havana's leafy Vedado neighborhood. Alonso and the contributors du jour plan the program in two small rooms on the second floor before heading over to the Institute of Radio and Television in the commercial center of the city. Alonso, who comes across as a leftist Chris Matthews (the surly host of MSNBC's Hardball), did most of the talking.

"The interpretation of the majority -- that's what we defend on the Mesa," Alonso declared.

Randy Alonso, Arleen Rodriguez, and Lazaro Barredo (from left) understand yanquistandards of balance and fairness -- they just reject them
Kirk Nielsen
Randy Alonso, Arleen Rodriguez, and Lazaro Barredo (from left) understand yanquistandards of balance and fairness -- they just reject them

But how does one interpret that? The answer, of course, can be found in its origins and purpose.


Just as Nightline began with the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, so did Mesa Redonda spring from a hostage crisis of a different sort. It was one involving the fate of a five-year-old boy found floating in an inner tube off the coast of South Florida. At the outset of the interview, Alonso explained how it came to pass that MR was part of a strategy of mass protest aimed at winning the return of Elian Gonzalez. The first Mesa Redonda aired on December 16, 1999, a little less than a month after the boy was rescued on Thanksgiving Day and placed in the custody of relatives in Miami. "There was a lot of preoccupation in the population over the child's situation, that they were smothering him with presents, the thing about Ileana Ros-Lehtinen giving him an [American] flag, the influence of the family, the demonstrations in front of the house," Alonso pronounced. "So people began wondering about what could happen to that boy."

Leaders from various youth and student unions organized a demonstration outside the U.S. Interests Section, which overlooks Havana's seaside boulevard, the Malecón. "The first protest in front of the U.S. Interests Section was on December 5," recalled Alonso, who is a Union of Communist Youth director. "The next day, December 6, Elian's birthday was celebrated in Cardenas and in front of the U.S. Interests Section. And every day that passed, the protests grew in number. And then simultaneous protests were even held in various cities of Cuba. And different sectors started to hold acts of protest -- intellectuals, journalists, scientists, doctors."

But in addition to waging mass protest, Alonso said, the groups decided to create a television show "to provide a little bit of explanation to the people." He and another comrade were assigned to the task. "It was decided to do a Mesa on December 16 that was to be based on the question, ďIn how much time is it possible to change the mind of a child?'" Alonso divulged. "[We invited] the most distinguished psychologists, psychiatrists, and pedagogues in the country." The show aired from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. (without commercials).

Lazaro Barredo interjected that the creation of MR occurred a few months after the Union of Writers and Artists and the Union of Journalists had determined it was necessary to offer the Cuban public "a larger space" regarding access to culture and information.

Subsequent episodes of MR began airing a month later, on January 16, 2000, with the goal of informing the Cuban public about the little hostage's new surroundings. "We told the population what was happening with Elian, what was happening with the judicial process, about the maneuverings by the Cuban-American Mafia in Miami, the whole situation with the relatives," Alonso recapped. "In later shows we took up topics related to the situation in the United States, such as education in the United States and Cuba. On the health system in Cuba and United States. What was the school going to be like where Elian was going to study. What did they teach there? The famous Lincoln-Martí School of Demetrio Perez."

Did you bring in experts on the Lincoln-Martí schools? New Times wondered.

"No, we found everything in their study program and in everything they were saying about it -- and we compared it with our own [curriculum] -- and in everything Demetrio Perez said," Alonso replied. "And in Perez's book, the book in which he wrote that Nixon was a great figure."

It was during the Elian coverage that Cubans began to see an unprecedented number of U.S. news segments. It all resulted in extremely high ratings. "There was talk that 70 or 80 percent of the people polled had seen the entire Mesa Redonda," Alonso gloated.

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