HAVANA — There have been some strange sights on Cuban TV sets recently.
News-starved viewers watched an Ecuadorean opposition candidate liken the government of President Rafael Correa, one of Havana’s staunchest allies, to a moonwalking Michael Jackson: He walks like he’s moving ahead, but he’s actually going backward.
On another day Cubans learned a quarter-billion of their fellow Latin Americans have access to the Internet — something less than 10 percent of islanders can say themselves.
Cubans even watched a live broadcast of U.S. President Barack Obama’s inaugural address.
Such images would be unremarkable in most countries, but they’re a break from the stodgy, tightly scripted state-run television that has long been the only fare in Cuba, with its mind-numbing tributes to efficiency, constant diatribes against the U.S. economic embargo and remembrances of minor anniversaries from the early years of the 1959 revolution.
The change has come not from U.S.-funded TV Marti, which few Cubans can see, but via the left-leaning Latin American news channel Telesur, which is bankrolled primarily by Venezuela. Since Jan. 20, it has broadcast live about 12 hours a day in Cuba.
Telesur’s outlook may be sympathetic to Cuba’s socialist model, but it’s still a relatively unfiltered news source, and many say the decision to carry it here is as groundbreaking as other recent reforms, such as legalizing more private businesses and allowing greater travel freedom.
“It’s a window onto the world. It’s a different way of seeing things,” said Marcos Guizaldivar, a 41-year-old restaurant worker in Havana who said he was fascinated by Telesur and had all but tuned out Cuban state TV. “It would be great if they had it on 24 hours a day.”
Guizaldivar and many others are captivated by Telesur’s global newsgathering, fresh, real-time reports and slick production values, all novelties for an audience accustomed to low-budget weather graphics and word-for-word readings of lengthy essays by retired President Fidel Castro.
Even Telesur’s critics welcome its arrival on the island.
“I think it is a positive step in Cuba, where all media are controlled by the Communist Party,” said Carlos Lauria, senior Americas program director for the New York-based Committee to Project Journalists, a media advocacy group.
But he noted that Telesur is unlikely to report on internal issues that reflect poorly on Havana’s government, such as Cuba’s tiny dissident community or problems with the country’s crumbling housing.
It’s “limited, because there is no different or critical vision where dissent is expressed,” Lauria said.
Telesur was conceived as a force for regional integration and as a counterweight to Western channels such as CNN and BBC. It began broadcasting in 2005 and receives majority funding from Venezuela, with the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua contributing lesser shares.
All those countries are run by leaders considered part of the Latin American left, most notably Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and critics of the channel point to examples of ideologically driven coverage, such as its pro-regime reports during the Libyan uprising against Moammar Gadhafi.
Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuba-born economist and University of Denver lecturer, said that no matter the editorial line, competition with private channels across the region means that Telesur doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring major events.
A speech by a U.S. president, for example, was almost unheard of on Cuban TV in recent decades.
Telesur’s programming gives islanders a close-up look at the more modern, messy, consumer-driven world outside.
One recent commercial urged viewers to use a smartphone app to follow Ecuador’s elections — something that’s prohibitively expensive for most Cubans.
On a recent evening, Telesur covered a Venezuelan congressional session in which opposition lawmakers stridently defended themselves from critics across the aisle. That was an unusual image for Cuba, where parliament generally passes legislation unanimously, with discussion but without visible debate.
“The population will be exposed to a political model that distinguishes loyal opposition from treason … that does not imply uncritical acceptance,” Lopez-Levy said.
Telesur carries musical and historical programs, as well as documentaries with investigative journalism and reporters grilling their subjects. That, too, is a significant departure from the softball questions typical of Cuban news and the echo-chamber analysis of the nightly TV public affairs show.
“Telesur is something completely novel for us,” said Felipa Martinez, a 68-year-old retired government office worker. “What’s also valuable is that you can stay current on international events.”
As with the recent law making it easier for Cubans to travel abroad, the government apparently is betting that familiarity with the outside world won’t make people pushier about demanding political change or material goods.
President Raul Castro has urged Cuban journalists to elevate the quality and creativity of their reporting, though there have been few examples of any newfound independence as yet.
Alzugaray, the former diplomat, said Telesur could provide an example for local reporters and their Communist Party-conscious bosses and help them shed the long-held mentality that it’s risky to be too inquisitive.
“It’s a different model of journalism, a model that many of us are demanding from Cuban journalism,” he said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Well, we can have revolutionary politics and still have discussion and diversity.’”