Mesa Redonda (Round Table) is a Cuban news and current affairs TV programme hosted by Randy Alonso that airs weeknights. Launched a decade ago, it is one of the many initiatives of the Battle of Ideas initiated by Fidel Castro following the successful campaign to demand the return of the Cuban child Elian Gonzalez in 2000. The Battle of Ideas encompasses dozens of cultural, educational and social programs aimed at reasserting socialist values eroded during the long, harsh post-Soviet Special Period. There is also an international edition of the programme broadcast on the Telesur (South TV) network based in Caracas, Venezuela.
Each edition of Mesa Redonda features journalistic reports and discussions by expert panels on the featured topic. Before he retired from the presidency Fidel would occasionally appear in the audience and would sometimes be invited to speak. For those of us in capitalist societies bombarded by filth such as Fox News and "infotainment" and more sophisticated pro-capitalist propaganda such as the BBC, Mesa Redonda is refreshing: serious, in-depth, pro-socialist analysis drawing on Cuba's abundant revolutionary intelligentsia. And this being Cuba, there is no commercial advertising in the nation's media. None.
The programme's strength is its coverage of international issues. Lacking the resources of the corporate media giants, Mesa Redonda takes footage from CNN, erases the pro-capitalist commentary and adds its own voice-over to convey an entirely different message. Programmes such as Mesa Redonda are one reason why a typical 11 year old Cuban probably knows more about what's really going on in, say, the West Bank than most American adults. If you go there and you speak a little Spanish, stop a child in the street and ask them.
Yet as the letter to Granma below alludes to, Mesa Redonda has suffered from the near absence of real debate on internal issues that has characterised the Cuban media from the very first decade of the Revolution. In the classic 1968 Cuban film Memories of Underdevelopment directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, set in Havana in late 1962, there is a memorable scene of a Cuban televised debate on the theme of "Literature and Underdevelopment". In keeping with the social realism of the film, the scene is entirely realistic, so realistic that it features two real-life characters who play themselves in the film: Cuban novelist Edmundo Desnoes, on whose novel the film is based, and US playwright Jack Gelber.
In an amusing twist, the TV debate portrayed in the film is called, you guessed it, Mesa Redonda. In the scene, Gelber stands up in the audience in the middle of the debate and says, in English without subtitles, "My name is Jack Gelber, can I ask a question in English? Why is it that if the Cuban Revolution is a total revolution they have to resort to an archaic form of discussion such as a round table, and treat us to an impotent discussion of issues that I'm well informed about and most of the public here is well informed about, when there could be another, more revolutionary way to reach a whole audience like this?"
So way back in 1968, Memories of Underdevelopment, a masterpiece of sophisticated revolutionary criticism, that is, criticism that seeks to provoke critical reflection on the Revolution's shortcomings from a sympathetic standpoint, pointed out the limitations of the panel-of-experts format and the absence of public debate on critical internal issues. Here is the Google Video link to Memories of Underdevelopment. The scene begins 59 minutes, 19 seconds into the movie.
Mesa Redonda must be more attractive
Letter to the editor by L. Fleites Rivero, Granma, May 13, 2011
Translation: Marce Cameron
During the Con 2 que se quieran TV programme on March 3, show host Amaury [Perez] asked [Cuban journalist Reinaldo] Taladrid: Why not dedicate one day on the Mesa Redonda to discussing the problems of the population? Taladrid replied by saying that it wouldn't be easy and that while he understood Amaury's good intentions, there may be some who would want such a segment to be like a TV inquisition, these may not have been his exact words but he said something along these lines. I understand that this is Taladrid's personal opinion, I don't want to suggest that this is a decision that has been taken, I share his concern and we don't want to be naive, we know what happened in the old socialist bloc countries with press freedom, so vaunted by our enemies yet barely practiced by themselves.
In an interview with the director of [the 1999 Cuban film] Casa Vieja he said: We're fearful of making criticisms because we fear losing what we have, and why do we want what we have if it doesn't do us any good? This can be interpreted in several ways, but for me, and I don't think this is one of the possible interpretations, what we have must be greatly improved but we cannot afford to lose it, so we have to be careful with criticisms and their intentions.
Now then, I think we have to find a way to make the Mesa Redonda more attactive. I may be wrong and I may not have realised, but since the beginning of Mesa Redonda there haven't been any big changes, only small changes like The Corner segment that nearly always, I wouldn't say always, has very interesting commentaries.
Taladrid himself explained in Amauray's programme how, in Pasaje a lo Desconocido [Journey into the Unknown, a TV programme hosted by Taladrid], despite enjoying popularity, they keep looking for ways to continually improve the programme so people don't lose interest.
For me and many others who like to stay informed, Mesa Redonda is one of the best TV programmes because it not only gives you the news, but analyses and presents facts that allow one to see things from different viewpoints, going deeper and delving into the roots of problems. Most youth and many people who aren't so young don't watch it, and a valuable means to keep the population well informed is being lost, even when news breaks that is of interest to everyone. When you ask, "Have you heard what they said on Mesa Redonda?", some tell you they no longer have a TV or their kid is watching a children's programme, which is fair enough, but others tell you very quietly that they don't watch Mesa Redonda.
I think one way to increase the audience would be to take up themes that are more directly related to the population in a way that is sufficiently intelligent so as not to turn it into an inquisition, as Taladrid said.
Raul [Castro] said we have to do away with the excessive secrecy to which we have become accustomed to during more than 50 years of living close to the enemy [i.e. US imperialism], because with the justification of not harming the Revolution we are actually harming the people.
In programmes that deal with the problems facing the population there can be a segment that takes up international issues, as happened yesterday when they were discussing sports and they touched on the issue of the falsification of the videos of Osama bin Laden and vice versa, as well as dealing with international issues there can be a round table or a programme taking up a fundamental problem facing the people, thus ensuring that most days people are interested, or the following week continuing with a topic broached previously.
Current events are causing the demoralisation of imperialism due to its politics of double standards and many people, though they may be aware of this, don't internalise this problem [for imperialism] because they don't watch Mesa Redonda, nor the news, nor read the newspaper. We can't be satisfied with this and say "if they don't want to watch it what can we do", I'm not saying it compares with a novel, but we have to make it more attractive, getting audience feedback via surveys and never being satisfied with what has been achieved. The country is making great efforts to improve the economic situation, but ideology has to be one step ahead of these changes and for this we have to convince people, always taking into consideration that the enemy has powerful means of communication that are attractive in form, basing themselves on lies and manipulation in their constant efforts to confuse the less well-informed.
Let's recall Che when he said: "Don't concede even an inch to imperialism".