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The Revolution, televised

You might be surprised what Cubans are watching.

A Cuban family watches TV, April 19, 2000. (Rafael Perez/Reuters)

HAVANA, Cuba — Over the past two decades, the U.S. government has spent some $500 million to beam news and commentary with an anti-Castro bent into Cuba. But the programming hasn't exactly been a ratings success.

The Cuban government controls all media on the island and views the broadcasts as enemy propaganda, so it jams the signals. The Miami-based stations, Radio and TV Marti, have spent still more money trying to overcome this by transmitting from moving airplanes, but the broadcasts reach less than 1 percent of Cuba’s 11 million residents, according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Meanwhile, hours and hours of subversive American programming fill Cuba’s airwaves each day, attracting millions of viewers on the island with shows like “Desperate Housewives,” “Friends” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” How do they get there? They’re broadcast by Cuba’s own communist government.

With Radio and TV Marti and its $34-million annual budget facing growing skepticism in Congress, the Miami stations’ defenders insist they’re helping to break the Cuban government’s monopoly on information. But while Cuba’s programming is politically biased and often tedious, it’s hardly a drab, droning monotony of pro-Castro propaganda.

Every night, Cuban television viewers are treated to programming lineup loaded with contradictory messages. From 6 p.m. to 8:30 or so, the government’s news and commentary predictably depict the United States as a racist, dysfunctional and violent mess, highlighting all the day’s negative stories. Then the same state-owned TV channels fill their prime-time slots with Hollywood movies and American programs loaded with images of prosperous American households, brilliant American doctors and fair-minded American courts of law, all populated by exceedingly healthy and charismatic actors of every race and ethnicity.

So how do Cuban TV viewers reconcile these dueling impressions?

“It’s two sides of the same country,” said Lorena Sandoval, a 60-year-old Havana resident who says the mixed programming is a reminder that not everything in the United States is entirely good or bad.

Sandoval’s not sure many Cubans get the nuance, though. “They just see the nice cars and houses and think everyone in the U.S. lives that way,” said Sandoval, herself a devoted fan of “Gilmore Girls,” “CSI: Las Vegas” and “The Dog Whisperer.”

Cuba has five national television channels, and last weekend, the programming included a broad range of foreign and locally produced programming, everything from Cuban baseball games and low-budget music shows to “101 Dalmatians” and episodes of HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” The only commercials were public service announcements — encouraging people to conserve electricity, avoid littering and use condoms, for instance.

“I think Cuban TV’s main goal is educational,” said Javier Torres, a 32-year-old Havana resident who said his only major gripe about state-run programming is the lack of diverse viewpoints on news and commentary programs. His favorite show is the prison drama “Oz.”