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

MR viewers then got a crash course on many aspects of the enemy country. "How is the U.S. political system structured? How is the judicial system? What is the situation with childhood in North America?"

Other shows explored conflicts in the Mideast, Kosovo, and Macedonia. For several months last year, the Miami trial of five Cuban spies was fodder. "We devoted a good twelve Mesa Redondas to the five Cubans who are in prison in the United States," Alonso continued. "We did an analysis of how the trial went. What happened in the trial day by day, according to the diary of one of them. We had a huge viewership for that."

Shows in late 2000 were dominated by the U.S. presidential election debacle and the arrest in Panama of Luis Posada Carriles and three other exiles for an alleged plot to bomb Castro during the annual Ibero-American Summit.

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

"We did three very good months explaining to the public the origin and development of the Cuban counterrevolution," Alonso allowed. "Because people knew about the [Cuban American National] Foundation and Brothers to the Rescue, but they didn't have a real knowledge. Mesa Redonda gave them practically the knowledge of a specialist."

Just as Nightline did when the Iran hostage crisis ended, MR expanded into nonpolitical subjects. "The Mesas became a kind of popular university in which we tackled the most varied themes, and that served to provide general knowledge for the population," Alonso offered. "That's why we talked about economics, science, politics, history, sports. We've had the best athletes of Cuba on the show. We did a Mesa about the athletes of the century in Cuba, and some of the best athletes were there. We did a Mesa about the creation of the national baseball team. Because that's a topic that interests the whole country. We've done Mesas with campesinos, with women. There's been a little of everything."

But this is still Cuba, the bunker state. And while topics proliferated, opposing viewpoints have not.

Did MR ever have a commentator or guest who supported Elian staying in Miami?

"No," Alonso replied. "There weren't any really. But yes, we put on positions of people in the United States who said he should stay. A lot of them." Among them were Alex Penelas, Joe Carollo, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Jorge Mas Santos, and Jorge Basulto via U.S. television news reports. Barredo noted they were aired even though most people in Cuba preferred not to listen to the exiles.

"But I didn't meet anyone here in Cuba who favored it," Rodriguez insisted. "Even the people who didn't sympathize with the [Castro] government didn't understand why he should stay."

In what appeared to be the first sign of divergent opinion among our four interviewees, Eduardo Dimas revealed that he knew of one Cuban on the island who thought Elian should stay in the United States. But he soon clarified that she was a lunatic. "I met a woman who even belonged to a dissident organization. She lives near my house. But when they returned Elian, she separated from the dissident organization because she said [Elian's return] was garbage, that Elian should have stayed in Miami," Dimas recounted. "She is an individual who is absolutely unbearable. An individual who even those who share her political ideas can't stand. Even her son can't bear her.... She is one of these abominable individuals."

But wouldn't it have been interesting to have invited someone who favored the idea of Elian staying in the United States to defend the position on a Mesa Redonda?

"The direction of the Mesa was precisely to fight for the return of Elian," Alonso instructed. "The program wasn't created to give a voice to an internal counterrevolution that doesn't have any following. Our confrontation was with the masters of that counterrevolution, the United States and the Cuban-American Mafia." Moreover hardly anybody who lived in Cuba thought he should stay in Florida, Alonso declared. "In Cuba the immense majority of the people, let's say 99 percent of the people, wanted Elian to be returned."

Barredo concurred with the thesis: "During Elian we said we were summoning 100,000 people [to protest]. And a half-million showed up. Or 300,000 or 400,000. So it was a very strong power of mobilization."

Then came a flash of journalistic glasnost. Alonso allowed that if a minority opinion were great enough, say twenty percent, then the dignified thing would be to have proponents of that view on the show: "In the United States 80 percent of North Americans wanted Elian to return to Cuba. A great part of the Hispanic population, except for the Cubans, wanted him to be returned. And the majority of the Anglos wanted him to return. Therefore whatever station that was to be respected had to put on the two opinions because the others, those who wanted him to stay, were the minority."

But it was just a flash. Alas, MR did not have to include supporters from that minority to retain its respectability, Alonso explained, because in Cuba that minority was far smaller. Alonso concluded that because his show had made heavy use of reports from Miami's WLTV-TV (Channel 23) and WSCV-TV (Channel 51), MR's coverage actually exaggerated the size of the tiny Elian-should-stay faction. "Really we were giving [too much weight] to the opinion of those who thought he should stay. Clearly in Miami the ones who have control of the communications media are the Cuban-American Mafia who wanted him to stay," Alonso asserted.

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