Friday, June 27, 2008

CUBA: The ‘Telenovela’ as Springboard for Public Debate

Inter Press Service News Agency

By Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Jun 26 (IPS) - Months have gone by and he still receives suspicious calls on his cell-phone. Memories of a woman who became obsessed with him are triggered every time Chucho sees a popular prime time Brazilian TV "telenovela".

"When she found out that I wanted to break up, she started to harass me madly, tracking my every move, calling my cell-phone at all hours, and coming on to me sexually all the time, and when she saw that I was rejecting her, the situation deteriorated into violence," the 25-year-old told IPS.

Chucho constantly sees himself reflected in the story of Eloisa and Sergio, one of a number of couples featured in the telenovela (serial) "Mulheres Apaixonadas" (Passionate Women) that is showing three times a week on Cubavisión, one of Cuban state television’s four national channels, and is watched by millions of viewers.

Eloisa is aware that she "loves too much" and can even go to the extreme of almost killing her husband; Raquel does not know how to get away from her violent husband; Helena has placed all her hopes on reviving a lost romance; and Lorena is facing the consequences of living with a younger man who she says "could be my son."

"In Latin America, and in Cuba in particular, telenovelas are helping to prompt public discussion on issues that would be impossible to bring up in other settings," University of Havana history Professor Julio César González Pagés told IPS.

"Questions like AIDS, sexual diversity and marginalisation are reflected in these programmes more intensely than aspects of high society or high-brow culture," said González Pagés, head of the Ibero-American Masculinity Network. "The relationship between men and women is also important, especially because in many cases relationships go beyond the times when love followed the Romeo and Juliet model."

"Passionate Women" deals with a broad range of social issues like gender violence, alcoholism, the romance between two teenage lesbians and their relationships with their families, sexual harassment, prostitution and adoption.

But although the telenovela approaches these questions in a "politically correct" manner, Cuban journalist Isabel Moya argues that "it is practically impossible to delve in depth into such a wide range of issues, and many are dealt with in a fairly superficial way."

"The essential underlying problem of this telenovela is that the women live, breathe and exist for their relationships, the rest is just scenography," said Moya, the head of the gender and communications department at the "José Martí" International Institute of Journalism in Havana, and the director of the state Editorial de la Mujer (Women’s Publishing House).

"The name of the telenovela makes that clear. The plot is overly focused on ‘passion’ and the concept of love is closely linked to possession, control and complementarity, rather than depicted as an opportunity for pleasure and affection shared by two independent human beings," she told IPS.

At the same time, "the rich diversity of characters that you see in the telenovela’s opening credits sequence gives an impression of a more diverse cast than the middle and upper-middle class families that the programme’s main conflicts revolve around."

Whatever the case, academics like González Pagés are studying the way telenovelas are sparking necessary debate on social issues in Cuba.

That occurred with the Cuban telenovela "La cara oculta de la luna" (The Dark Side of the Moon), which addressed questions like AIDS and bisexuality, and could happen again in the case of Passionate Women.

As with all Cuban telenovelas, the episodes are seen by most Cubans and become such frequent subjects of conversation in the market or on the bus that at times it is hard to understand certain comments or jokes for those who aren't up-to-date on the lives of each of the programme’s characters.

"In Cuba, if you want to know what people are talking about, you have to watch the telenovela. You can even walk by a corner and a guy calls you the name of one of the characters. If you’re not up on what’s going on, you won’t know if they’re insulting you or giving you the nicest compliment in the world," Georgina Torriente, a journalist who works with a local radio station, told IPS.

Unlike in other countries where cable TV stations broadcast telenovelas all day long, Cubans only have one nightly episode, with the latest Cuban serial alternating nights with a foreign programme, usually Brazilian.

Some provincial stations show telenovelas at other times of the day, and air reruns of popular serials late at night. "People are loyal to the programmes, and tend to plan activities around them," said Torriente.

"Many academics who have studied the phenomenon of telenovelas say viewers establish a dialogue between what they watch on TV and what they experience in their daily lives, and in that sense, tackling issues like the ones that are appearing now can help generate debate and discussion within the family," said Moya.

González Pagés said that when it comes to encouraging debate on questions of equality, "any forum is legitimate, even telenovelas."

"Although this is a country with excellent laws that protect women in their relationships, there are still many deeply rooted patriarchal customs. These serials serve as spaces for bringing up subjects like violence, lesbian sexuality, alcoholism and others that we don't know how to approach otherwise," said the professor.

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