Friday, February 09, 2007

Cuba cracks down on illegal satellite dishes

Miami Herald
Posted on Fri, Feb. 09, 2007

Cuba cracks down on illegal satellite dishes


José Antonio provided the supplies and the technical know-how, and got a friend named Celestino to pitch in on weekends so they could sell illegal access to telenovelas and cartoons to fellow Cubans.

A full-page article in Thursday's Cuban daily newspaper Granma explained how the pair rented a shop from a man named Lázaro in a Havana neighborhood called 10th of October, where they soldered and screwed bolts on satellite dishes with enough materials to make at least 30.

Police dubbed it ''The Antenna Case.'' The three men now face up to three years in prison. A fourth man had a net worth of more than $38,000 -- a fortune in Cuba -- mostly in electronics.

'They are sending a shot across the bow: `We're not going to permit this. We will try to control and do something about it,' '' said University of Miami Cuba expert Andy Gómez. ``They are continuing to put a fence around the island and secure what's coming in.''

Just two months after the U.S. government announced it would transmit its anti-Castro channel TV Martí on Direct TV -- which Cubans can watch using the banned satellite dishes --Cuban authorities appear to be going after the illegal signals with a vengeance.

'The rise in the number of the people in the world who `consume' programs transmitted by satellite and cable, fraudulently pirating [the signal] . . . is worrisome,'' Granma said. ``It shows the Bush administration's double standard: On the one hand they severely punish television signal piracy in their own country, on the other, they promote its use in Cuba.''

The newspaper story detailing the nearly year-old criminal case of José Antonio and his friends was the second article denouncing TV Martí in a week. And Cubanet, a Miami-based exile news organization that publishes dispatches from independent journalists on the island, reported Thursday that the Cuban National Police and the telephone company were patrolling city streets on the hunt for illegal TV hook-ups.

''The attention they are giving it now gives us confidence that TV Martí is working,'' said Alberto Mascaro, chief of staff for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, the government office that runs TV Martí. ``If they are so worried about it, that only means one thing: It is working.''

Other experts said it's unclear whether the warning was a reply to TV Martí, or simply a demonstration of the power wielded by newly named Communications Minister Ramiro Valdés, a hard-liner.

Satellite dishes are illegal in Cuba, except for the rare entities like hotels which have the required permit. But U.S. officials estimate there are 10,000 to 30,000 dishes on the island assembled using smuggled parts. In 2005, a Cuban-American named Carlos Valdés was arrested at the Havana airport trying to bring in satellite receivers, cables, remote controls and batteries, Granma reported last year.

In a nation where there are only four TV channels that usually offer dull programming, families are eager to spend $10 a month for a chance to watch Univisión and other U.S. stations. In August, Cubans watched exiles dancing on Calle Ocho streets at news of Fidel Castro's sickness. Days later, the government began a crackdown.

The Direct TV signal also carries Azteca América, a channel that broadcasts one hour a day of TV Martí, an anti-Castro propaganda station.

Critics have blasted the Office of Cuba Broadcasting for years, saying it spends millions of dollars broadcasting shows nobody watches, because the Cuban government easily jams its nonsatellite signals. The December move to air the programs on Direct TV was aimed at broadening the audience and skirting Cuban jamming.

''I would compare this to Iran, where our satellite TV is quite popular and eventually has led in the past six month to a series of crackdowns on people with satellites, although it's always been illegal,'' said Larry Hart, spokesman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees TV Martí. ``They seem to crack down when they get word that too many people are getting the news.''

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