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
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

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.

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.

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, “In 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.

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.

"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.

Taking advantage of a pause, Arleen Rodriguez commented that MR had aired other distasteful things from the enemy camp, even the home video (initially obtained by Univision) of Elian on a bed looking into a camera and telling his dad to join him in Miami. She called it an act of "torture" against the boy and "the worst thing that I can remember that has been done in the history of journalism."


7:30 p.m. Rogelio Polanco, the 35-year-old director of the newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebellious Youth), just finished his turn on the set. Alonso had tapped him to recap the demonstrations that erupted in Pakistan condemning the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan. Polanco also read from a Washington Post article about Osama bin Laden's financial support of the Taliban and clarified the meaning of the Arabic word jihad, which basically means "struggle," and not necessarily a violent one. "The region continues to be very explosive," he observed.

The set microphones went off, and now, an hour into the program, the audience began to chat loudly, ignoring a CNN en Español report on the hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees that had fled to Iran, Turkmenistan, and other nations. But everyone obediently shut up when the director yelled, "Ten seconds!" just before Alonso returned to the air. Time now for Rodriguez to delineate reaction in the Middle East and other parts of the world, again making uncanny use of foreign news accounts. Among other things she cited an article from an Arab newspaper published in New York City in which militants called British Prime Minister Tony Blair "a legitimate military target." She also informed that the government of the Dominican Republic backed the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan. And Spain's Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez had come out with a statement criticizing Fidel Castro for supporting ETA, the terroristic Basque separatist organization. That was followed by an ABC backgrounder on war coverage by a television station in Qatar featuring footage of sheiks at the controls.

7:50 p.m. Almost an hour and a half into the show, audience members glanced increasingly at their watches. Television journalist Reinaldo Taladrid expounded on the situation in the United States. He relayed reports on anthrax scares, emphasizing that if guilty, the accused faced several years in jail. "This is a reflection of the panic that the United States is experiencing," he ascertained. "But it's not just the North American public. The panic has spread to Germany. This is total hysteria." He added a blurb about a proposal in Congress to protect water supplies from terrorist poisoning. "They are inventing a threat," he surmised. A CNN report on the mood in New York City was the last hegemonic blast from the empire's media establishment.

Cut to video of one of the Twin Towers collapsing. The music bed is Lennon's once again. This time it's the song "Imagine."


Although MR is allowing unprecedented quantities of U.S. news reports from the United States into Cuba's collective consciousness, that doesn't mean it is letting in our hallowed concepts of balance and fairness. Surely there must be enough people in Cuba who support of the U.S. military campaign to find Osama bin Laden to justify inviting someone with that opinion on Mesa Redonda, right?

Nope.

Barredo again offered the rationale that the minority is too small. "I think that an absolute, overwhelming majority in the country," Barredo proclaimed, "is against the war and against terrorism. It would be very difficult for you to find a segment of the population that is in favor of either of the two things."

Alonso estimated that according to the popular opinion surveys, 95 to 99 percent of those on the island oppose the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda. "Imagine, that with the little time that I have that I would dedicate myself to go out in the city of Havana ... and find the guy [who opposes the war] to come to the show to express his opinion. He is such a minority that he wouldn't represent anybody.

"The concepts of freedom of expression are different. This is the expression of the majority. That's what we are defending on the Mesa," he exclaimed. "Clearly our position is in the editorial line of the Mesa. We are talking about the war, but we're not defending the war. We're against the war. And we're not with the Taliban or bin Laden. But we are for the Afghanis that are being killed."

At this juncture Arleen Rodriguez attempted to make a case for excluding opposing viewpoints from other Cuban media. One justification was "verbal terrorism" by foreign stations outside Cuba, including Radio Martí, the U.S. government station that beams programming at the island. "During my program on Radio Rebelde, which is on from five to nine in the morning, a lot of people call, insulted, at seven or eight in the morning," said Rodriguez. "They say, “Hey, Radio Martí is on your frequency. They are attacking you.' They enter aggressively. We are talking about stations that enter with discrepant, different messages, asking people to assassinate Fidel Castro or to plant bombs."

These radio incursions were preying on people Rodriguez described as the "least educated politically or culturally, where our signals don't arrive well. A whole spectrum of stations from the Caribbean and Miami enter directly, interfering. It's not contrary opinions [that we exclude]. It's terrorism, literally. We aren't talking about the North American people [doing this]. We're talking about a mafia with millions of dollars supporting a counterrevolutionary project."

Sensing our interviewees were now digressing wildly, we began feeling a little like the cantankerous Chris Matthews ourselves.

Is there ever going to be a journalist in the studio who takes a different position regarding the war in Afghanistan?

"We are defending [our position] that we are against the war," Alonso retorted.

"And against terrorism," Dimas added.

"And against terrorism," Alonso echoed. "How is it that the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, ABC, CNN, et cetera, et cetera, only defend the editorial line that concludes that the war is necessary?" Alonso continued.

But those news organizations also present a variety of reports that include critics of the war.

"That's fine," Alonso retorted. "But I only have an hour and a half. CNN devotes 24 hours to that.... I devote [the time] to defend my editorial position."

Rodriguez submitted another rhetorical -- and hyperbolic -- layer to the case for limiting debate. "This country is full of people killed by terrorism," she began, adding, improbably, that virtually everyone knows of a relative or friend who died from it. "This country is full of the tears of terrorism, and nobody has ever paid any attention." Now, after the September 11 attacks in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., the United States knows the pain, she added. "And it hurts everybody who has a little sensitivity," she emphasized. "Please! Do something for our struggle. Why are there five boys in prison in Miami? Because this country has been living under the threat of terrorism. Why does this country have security measures that seem strange in other countries? Now it's spreading. Why are Fidel and Raul never in the same place at the same time? Now everybody understands why Cheney and Bush aren't either." (We knew we were bogged down in the propaganda war when Dimas launched into a recap of Cuba's unanswered appeals at the United Nations in the Seventies after the bombing of a Cubana de Aviación airliner in 1976, in which 73 people were killed.)

Alonso said that of the thousands of people surveyed for MR, only one person has expressed an opinion in favor of the war. "In favor of the war or in favor of terrorism, it's difficult for you to find someone who is looking for a platform to defend that," Barredo declared.

Well, not that difficult. The next day New Times, without really looking, stumbled into the supposedly rare Cuban citizen who supported the bombing raids in Afghanistan. "If the United States doesn't hit the terrorists hard, they'll attack again, in China or somewhere else," reasoned a 31-year old native of Santiago named Alexander, who was on a stroll near the Plaza de la Revolución. "If the U.S. hadn't done it, the terrorists wouldn't believe in the power of the United States."

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