[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [Jhistory]: Walls on Rivero, 'Broadcasting Modernity: Cuban Commercial Television, 1950-1960'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Fri Oct 26 13:12:49 MDT 2018

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From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Fri, Oct 26, 2018 at 3:07 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [Jhistory]: Walls on Rivero, 'Broadcasting Modernity:
Cuban Commercial Television, 1950-1960'
To: <H-REVIEW at lists.h-net.org>

Yeidy M. Rivero.  Broadcasting Modernity: Cuban Commercial
Television, 1950-1960.  Console-ing Passions: Television and Cultural
Power Series. Durham  Duke University Press, 2015.  264 pp.  $25.95
(paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-5871-8; $94.95 (cloth), ISBN

Reviewed by Eric Walls (East Carolina University)
Published on Jhistory (October, 2018)
Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

Walls on Rivero, _Broadcasting Modernity_

It is without question that the advent of television in the
mid-twentieth century drastically altered the sociocultural fabric of
Western societies where the technology first proliferated. The
utility of television as a tool for constructing new ideas about
social and political issues and creating new national identities that
could unite disparate social groups under a single banner was not
lost on the entrepreneurs who first invested in the fledging industry
or on governments that regulated its access. Sure, entertainment may
have been the primary purpose of television for its growing legions
of viewers in the first few decades of its existence, but for those
in positions of power this purpose was secondary to television's
usefulness as an arbiter of social consciousness and the
dissemination of propaganda. In _Broadcasting Modernity: Cuban
Commercial Television, 1950-1960_, television historian and
University of Michigan professor Yeidy M. Rivero examines this
phenomenon as it manifested in Cuba in the decade of television's
rise to prominence. Rivero broadcasts her thesis in the title of the
book, as she argues consistently throughout that Cuban television's
primary purpose in Cuban society of the 1950s was to foster the
concept, both internally and abroad, that Cuba was a modern and
progressive nation a step above most of its Latin American neighbors
and on par with the rest of the Western world.

At the dawn of the 1950s, Cuba was perhaps the most "modern" Latin
American nation, thanks in no small part to its close economic and
political ties to the United States. North American businessmen
provided much of the capital for Cuban business and industry and the
island served as the tropical playground for the rich and famous. The
elites and the rising middle class in Cuba were immensely proud of
Cuba's progress, especially after the passage of the very progressive
constitution of 1940, which mandated such forward-thinking policies
as public education and a minimum wage. Yet, this façade of
modernity belied a deep undercurrent of poverty and exploitation,
especially in the rural areas of the island, which prevented most of
its citizens from fully participating in modernity, a fact that was
discomfiting to many of the middle and upper classes in Cuban
society. Rivero argues that to prevent this discomfiture from
becoming discontent, and to ensure continued support for the status
quo, the Cuban government, first through legislation and eventually
by more direct intervention, manipulated the medium to maintain a
constant vision of Cuba as a beacon of progress and as a shining
example to the rest of Latin America of a "modern" nation. Every
image and sound broadcast over the airwaves had to, in one shape or
fashion, portray this message. Those that failed to do so were
eventually culled or adjusted until they did.

Rivero develops some very interesting theories that supply a
framework for the process by which the vision of modernity was
broadcast through Cuban television and internalized by the Cuban
public. She develops four interconnected paradigms that are centered
on the concept of the "spectacle." These are dubbed "Spectacles of
Progress," "Spectacles of Decency," "Spectacles of Democracy," and
"Spectacles of Revolution." Her concept of the "spectacle" is loosely
derived from the work of the French Marxist philosopher Guy Debord as
outlined in his treatise, _The Society of the Spectacle _(1967).
Debord posits that a "spectacle" is "not a collection of images, but
a social relation among people, mediated by images" (quoted, p. 7).
Its power "resides in its representation and its capacity to convey
positive outcomes for citizens and society at large" (p. 7). It was
precisely the conveyance of positive outcomes, in the present and the
future that became the penultimate goal of television broadcasting in
Cuba, no matter to what degree the representations of outcomes
differed from the reality for most Cubans. As much as television
helped to shape what came to be defined as the "American Dream" in
the United States, it did much the same for the "Cuban Dream"--and
the two differed only in degree, not kind.

Each of the spectacles that Rivero outlines focuses on an aspect of
"modern" society that was the most immediate and relevant to the
construction of modernity. The first, "Spectacles of Progress," were
embodied first in the very technology itself. The origins of Cuban
television mirrored those of the United States. Both evolved from
previously established radio networks and debuted at roughly the same
time. Access to such "modern" technology in Cuba, concurrently with
its development in that most modern of Western societies--the United
States--was in itself proof that Cuba was on the path of progress.
The shining modern building constructed in Havana to house the
earliest Cuban television network was seen as a symbol of Cuba's
place in the evolving modern world. The signals of progress were also
communicated, both overtly and covertly, in a variety of other ways.
Both early Cuban television networks and its critics encouraged a
sense of heightened professionalism among television producers,
directors, technicians, and actors. This communicated that Cuba was
on the cutting edge of the medium. Television's utility as a vehicle
for advertising, and the culture of consumption that accompanied such
commercialization, drew Cuba into the expanding web of global
commercialism and consumption that was a prerequisite for joining the
train of modernity. Since access to the new technology was limited by
wealth, programming and advertising were geared toward the elite and
the upwardly mobile, who viewed themselves as modern progressives, a
view that television served to reinforce. For the less economically
prosperous, many who gathered in groups in homes, store windows,
restaurants, and bars to catch a glimpse of the flickering screens,
the vision of progress communicated to them dreams of potential
futures when they too could join the train of modernity.

The vision of progress broadcast in Cuba was not the exact same as in
the United States or other Western nations. It was tweaked to speak
to a specifically Cuban audience. These tweaks were caused by the
combined effects of public opinion, published criticism, and the
efforts of the Cuban government to insert what it deemed to be
national interests into the message of the medium. Since Cuba
obtained its independence in 1898, social and political reformers in
Cuba had articulated a vision of a homogeneous Cuba, where racial and
cultural mixing had transformed its diverse peoples into something
specifically Cuban. This concept of _cubanidad_ was seen as essential
to forging a cohesive nation. Through legislation in the early 1950s,
the Cuban government sought to reinforce the essence of _cubanidad_
and associate it with high culture. The government mandated that all
stations have a certain percentage of their programming reserved for
cultural and educational programming and a certain percentage had to
be produced in Cuba itself. However, this did not go unchallenged as
moneyed interests pushed back against restrictions and mandates,
which led to various changes to legislation that at times lessened

"Spectacles of Decency" was another way that Rivero argues the idea
of modernity was communicated through Cuban television. The concept
of "decency" was deeply tied to the conservative nature of the upper
classes, the very people who epitomized the social goals of
modernity. Communicating a high moral standard was seen as paramount
to the further development of a modern society in the model of the
upper and upwardly mobile classes. Through public pressure in the
form of media criticism and government intervention, every program
that appeared on Cuban television had to pass the test of decency so
as not to offend a conservative social morality. This was
particularly true for what Rivero terms "racialized sexuality" (p.
79). Despite the phenomenon of _cubanidad_, morality and decency was
still closely tied with the ideals of "whiteness." Thus, Cuba's rich
African heritage and its cultural manifestations had to be sanitized
for public broadcasting. The hypersexualized nature of Afro-Cuban
cultural manifestations like the rumba was not merely deemed vulgar,
but was seen as a direct threat to white racial homogeneity in that
it encouraged sex outside of racialized boundaries. The drive for
"decency" on television created a culture of censorship, articulated
somewhat independently through the Commission of Radio Ethics (a
holdover from the radio era) and through government oversight via the
Ministry of Communication.

"Spectacles of Democracy" came to the fore in the articulation of
Cuban modernity in the mid-50s, precisely at the time when the
illusion of democracy was crumbling in Cuba under Fulgencio Batista's
increasingly authoritarian regime. Democracy was intimately tied to
the concept of modernity and, at the bare minimum, a semblance of
democratic participation and the concomitant freedoms associated with
it had to be maintained in order for Cuba to maintain its position as
a modern society and avoid the condemnation of other modern
societies. With an irony not lost on many contemporaries, the
illusion of democracy could only be maintained in Cuba in the later
years of Batista's rule through direct government intervention and

The "Spectacles of Democracy" were the last gasp of the first phase
of Cuban television and were quickly subverted by the very medium
through which they was communicated to the Cuban people and
abroad--television. The CBS documentary _Rebels in the Sierra Madre_
aired in May of 1957, introduced the world to Fidel Castro, and
revealed the cracks in the façade of democracy that the Batista
regime wanted so badly to maintain. His experience with North
American media also served to fully inform Castro of the potential of
the medium in articulating and disseminating his revolutionary views.
>From the very moment that Castro achieved success and rode into
Havana triumphant, his revolution was televised and ratings were
through the roof. Revealing in many ways the failure of Batista's
government to successfully utilize Cuban television to shape public
opinion, Cuban television networks initially embraced Castro and his
message of a Cuba free from foreign influence. Castro articulated the
essence of _cubanidad_ and reshaped it to remove the class and caste
distinctions that had long prevented the full realization of the
ideal. Castro's modernity eschewed a reliance on the United States
and Europe as models to follow blindly, which relegated Cuba to what
could be seen as a second-class modernity. Castro fully embraced a
new sense of modernity that stripped down the best elements of the
West and dressed them up in Cuban packaging while articulating a
revolutionary message that was characterized as even more advanced
and "modern" than its contemporaries.

In sprite of this early support from the existing media apparatus,
the Cuban revolutionary government quickly nationalized Cuban
television, as it did all of Cuba's major industries. Castro
transformed Cuban television into not only the premiere propaganda
platform for the revolutionary zeitgeist, but his own personal
connection with the Cuban people. Rivero details at length the way
that Castro quickly became the most watched and most influential
television personality in Cuba--the face and the voice of the Cuban
Revolution. Castro would often speak for hours at a time on Cuban
television, inserting himself into the public sphere unlike any
political leader before him. It was through television that Castro
cultivated his popularity, which evolved naturally into a cult of
personality that became a huge factor in sustaining the revolution
through the decades of Castro's rule. Castro understood implicitly
the vitality of television as a tool to not only transmit his
message, but also to galvanize a population behind the movement and
quell dissent. His government internalized all three of the paradigms
of "spectacle" that Rivero identifies during the Batista era and
merged them into the "Spectacle of Revolution." For Castro, the
revolution was everything and the ideals of progress, decency, and
democracy were translated into a new revolutionary language.

Rivero's work is a bold and penetrating examination of the phenomenon
of television and its transformative social and political role in
Cuba. The study is all the more impressive considering the
methodological hurdles that Rivero had to overcome in researching and
writing this book. Sadly, few Cuban television shows or broadcasts
survive today. This prevented Rivero from examining these critical
primary sources for herself. Instead, she was forced to rely mostly
on published criticism and essays in the Cuban print media on the
topic as the basis for her investigation. Thankfully, this proved to
be a rich source of information as Cuban critics were very vocal
about what they perceived as right and wrong about Cuban television.
Rivero also closely examined the substantial legislation that was
passed by the government at various points in the decade to
investigate the ways the Cuban government reacted to and attempted to
manipulate the media. Even without access to the products of Cuban
television production, Rivero managed to produce a work of
considerable profundity.

If any critique is to be leveled at Rivero, it is the relative
absence of a comparative analysis of the status of television and its
uses as a creator and transmitter of culture in other Latin American
countries at the time. Particularly in the more advanced countries of
Latin America such as Mexico and Argentina, television was also
introduced in the early 1950s. It existence there coincided and
developed concurrently with Cuban television. Rivero argues
consistently that Cuba was a trailblazer in Latin American in
television production, but only cursorily mentions television's role
in other Latin American countries. Without this comparison, it is
still unclear whether Cuba was truly as unique in the Latin American
world as Rivero posits during the early years of television's
genesis. Perhaps that critique is slightly unfair as the broader
Latin American situation is beyond the scope of the work, but such a
context is critical for a full understanding of Cuban television's
place in the development of the medium in Latin America. It certainly
leaves ample room for future scholarship to expand upon Rivero's

Despite this small critique, _Broadcasting Modernity_ fills a hole in
not only the historiography of the role of television in Latin
America and the world, but in the historical analysis of the Cuban
Revolution itself. Only through understanding the role that
television played in fostering and sustaining the Cuban Revolution
can the success and long life of that revolution be fully understood.
Rivero's work also reveals that despite the best efforts of the media
industry and government in Cuba to shape public opinion and mold
morality and identity, these efforts largely failed to mask the
underlying problems in society, and many of those efforts ultimately
served more to alienate the masses and fuel discontent as the ideals
portrayed on the screen more often than not belied the realities on
the ground. Although Rivero does not articulate this exact point, it
can easily be extrapolated from her arguments and provides much food
for thought as to the effectiveness of similar attempts to use the
medium of television for purposes of social construction in other
nations. Perhaps the best signifier of a successful academic endeavor
is not necessarily the significance of the conclusions, but the new
questions it raises and the avenues of new exploration it reveals.
Rivero scores high on both counts.

Citation: Eric Walls. Review of Rivero, Yeidy M., _Broadcasting
Modernity: Cuban Commercial Television, 1950-1960_. Jhistory, H-Net
Reviews. October, 2018.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53070

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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