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Cuba's Widespread Piracy Culture


After over 50 years of trade embargoes against Cuba, the country has been starved of a lot of things. But when it comes to TV and movies, Cubans have been watching pretty much the same stuff as the rest of us. Nick Miroff is The Washington Post Latin America correspondent. He joins us from Havana. Hi, Nick. Thanks for being with us.

NICK MIROFF: My pleasure. Good to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: How is it that Cubans have been able to watch shows like "Friends," "Seinfeld," all kinds of TV shows that we in the U.S. have been watching for decades? How are they getting access to these shows?

MIROFF: Well, it's pretty simple. They just rip them off blatantly.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MIROFF: You know, their attitude is that if the United States is going to put a trade embargo on the country and make almost all forms of commerce impossible, then they're just going to help themselves to as much free American media as they want. So the result is that Cuban state television shows American movies and American programming without paying any royalties. And that, I think, it's - you know, in some ways, contributed to a broader culture of piracy and bootlegging. So on the streets of Havana and other Cuban cities, you can get bootleg copies of movies, DVDs, music, video games - that sort of thing.

MARTIN: But we find black markets like this in all kinds of developing countries around the world. But you're saying this is government-sanctioned. It's the government that's putting out these shows sometimes on TV?

MIROFF: That's right 'cause the government controls the airwaves. And at some point, they realized that if they wanted to get Cubans to watch their programming and absorb some of the political messages that are a big part of what's on state TV, then they have to show stuff that people really wanted to watch.

MARTIN: So is this something that U.S. officials are OK with?

MIROFF: No, it's not something they're OK with, but it's not a priority either. So when the commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker, was here a couple weeks ago, I asked her if this is one of the things she brought up with them. And she said, no, but that it was on their broader agenda. Cuba has its own complaints about U.S.-patented trademark violation having to do with the appropriation of Cuban tobacco and Havana Club, which is Cuba's most famous rum brand. So the dispute goes both ways. And it's one of these things that's going to have to be worked out as the two countries restore and normalize relations.

MARTIN: Is it in some way to the U.S. government's advantage to turn a blind eye because essentially it's kind of an exercise in soft power, that Cubans are absorbing Western culture? And maybe from an American perspective, that's not a bad thing?

MIROFF: Yeah, I mean, I think you could make the argument that an episode of "Friends," you know, that shows, you know, happy Americans living prosperous lives and, you know, not looking like somebody who be your enemy, I think that also - you know, that has a very profound psychological and cultural impact, right? So probably, you know, in the long term, that may be one of the reasons why the U.S. doesn't view it as such of a threat. And not to mention the fact that Cuba's such a tiny, relatively small market for, you know, this type of export.

MARTIN: Nick Miroff of The Washington Post joining us on the line from Havana. Thanks so much.

MIROFF: Good to be with you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.