TV series provokes debate on AIDS and teenage sex

Campaign News | Wednesday, 26 April 2006

Cuban TV decides to air soap opera later after public protests

HAVANA 25 April - A television series that portrays sex and talks about AIDS has provoked public controversy in Cuba.

Because of public concern Cuban TV has decided to air the series, entitled "La cara oculta de la luna" (The Dark Side of the Moon),one hour later.

In the series, Amanda, an uninformed, sexually precocious teenage character, under the strict control of her parents, becomes infected with HIV.

But the excplicit nature of the series drew criticism from large numbers of viewers of the prime time show.

The series has been made with the intention of making young people realise the dangers of unprotected sex.

According to actress Lourdes Suárez, who is director of the Espejos ("Mirrors") Project that puts on performances to promote AIDS prevention and social acceptance of people living with HIV, "the soap opera works," and "young people relate to it."

The television show "doesn't encourage them to indulge in inappropriate behaviour; on the contrary, it warns them about the virus," she says.

The series has focused on problems facing Cuban society, with AIDS as an ongoing theme. The national media reported on the negative reaction to the programme, but have defended the social role that television plays in Cuba.

Cuba's second most important daily newspaper, Juventud Rebelde, saw the "expansion of the debate to all sectors of society" as "positive."

It defended the expression of a broad variety of opinions and viewpoints, reporting criticisms voiced by local government officials in an inland region of the island.

These officials had deplored "programmees of this nature," which are very different from those usually transmitted on national television.

"People have an incredible capacity for self-censorship," historian Abel Sierra says. Sierra is the author of the report "From the Other Side of the Looking Glass: Sexuality in the Construction of the Cuban Nation," which won the Casa de las Américas prize this year in the socio-historical essay category.

In general, people in Cuba "don't want to discuss openly" subjects like those portrayed in the television series, and if these are also shown very frankly, people react with a sense of rejection, he said. Nevertheless, "reality is harsher than the television plots" because, according to research findings, "young people are increasingly sexually precocious," Sierra said.

Given this context, it is significant that the media have provided a sounding-board for discussion, since Cuba is so often described as lacking "a culture of debate."

That perception, according to historian Pedro Pablo Rodríguez, arises from the fact that certain issues are often absent from the public debate.

He expressed that viewpoint in Temas magazine, a Cuban publication on culture, ideology and society which promotes debates between experts, academics, intellectuals and members of the public who regularly attend these encounters, held on the last Thursday of each month.

In the same edition, sociologist Mayra Espina argued that "there isn't enough openness" for discussion, "because the political design" of the island "is too authoritarian," so that controversy "is restricted to minor matters."

Cuba has the lowest HIV rate in Latin America - 0.07 percent among those ages 15 to 24. But the incidence of the illness continues to grow.

Magda González, a Cuban television official, said that the decision to produce "The Dark Side of the Moon" took into account the state of the epidemic in the country. "AIDS continues to spread, and high-risk behavior, such as promiscuity and an irresponsible approach to sexuality, is widespread," she said.

Sierra appreciates the debate in the media, because "these topics haven't been discussed like this for a long time."

However, she believes it is necessary "to avoid the tendency towards sensationalism, and to involve specialists and academics who can project more discerning and professional views," for the good of teenagers and adults alike.

Actress Suárez says she thinks the themes of AIDS and young people are addressed appropriately in the programme.

"I have done performances in poor neighbourhoods in Havana, in which the audience has believed me to be HIV-positive, and that's when the interaction with people's concerns and questions has been the greatest," she said.

The programme is apparently popular with young people, and watching it before bedtime has been made obligatory at some pre-university boarding schools.

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