Civil Liberties

Video Surveillance


Last June, a dozen Cuban cops burst into the Havana home of one Cecilia Caballero Menendez, looking for a cache of dangerous contraband. According to the neighbors, Fidel's finest weren't looking for weapons, explosives, or even a hidden printing press. They were looking for videotapes that Caballero Menendez might have been renting to people bored witless by Castro's treatment of the Elian Gonzalez case.

Cops throughout Cuba have been scouring the island for such private video hoards throughout the Gonzalez melodrama. During the months that the boy was in the United States, Castro filled the Cuban airwaves with a barrage of talk shows and other programming demanding his return. After the boy was sent back by Janet Reno, Castro maintained his anti-American media momentum, programming hour after hour of shows demanding, for example, that the longstanding U.S. trade embargo be lifted.

The result: an explosion of private video rentals, as Cubans desperately sought something else to watch. Entrepreneurial citizens have started renting whatever tapes they have been able to accumulate to their neighbors, charging 10 pesos (about 40 cents) or less per tape. One such operator told a reporter for a Spanish-language paper in Miami that his customers included officials from Cuba's army and the Ministry of the Interior.

Although Cuba criminalizes any form of self-employment not specifically recognized by the state, an estimated 100 or so such private rental sources are flourishing in Havana. The better-stocked locations offer up to 6,000 titles. Some even deliver. (Cuba has "official," state-controlled video stores, too, but they charge far higher rates and cater to well-connected party members and foreigners.) Interestingly, the private operators offer more than feature films. Also available are shows taped off Miami broadcasts, including compilations of TV news.

In this case of Caballero Menendez, police told her neighbors they were looking for videos dealing with—of all subjects—Elian Gonzalez, suggesting a niche audience for direct counter-programming of Castro's major prime-time show. In this case, however, police were unable to find any tapes.