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US, Cuba battle over propaganda beamed via pirated TV signals

HAVANA -- The US government strives mightily to stamp out intellectual property theft all over the world -- except for Cuba, where it tries to broadcast anti communist messages to anyone able to see US programming through illegal satellite dishes.

Now the Cuban government is striking back, warning television signal pirates that they face stiff fines and jail terms.

The Communist Party newspaper Granma dedicated a full page yesterday to an account of the discovery and prosecution of four men who sold or maintained the sort of jerry-built satellite television systems believed to be hidden on thousands of rooftops across Cuba.

It came three days after Cuba denounced a US government strategy that began in December to use Florida television stations to get around Cuban jamming of TV Marti -- a move that has made the US-funded station, aimed at undermining Fidel Castro's government, accessible to thousands of Cubans who could never see it before.

By law, TV Marti is barred from broadcasting propaganda inside the United States, but anti-Castro advocates believe they've found a loophole and that the Florida stations can be used to reach the island as long as any US viewing is "inadvertent."

At any rate, Cubans themselves aren't saying much about the programs. This may be due to the fact that several households typically share a single antenna and decoding box; all must watch the same program, and most prefer the same sort of shows that are popular anywhere else -- music, soap operas, comedy, drama, and movies.

Commercial US signals provide a rich alternative to the thin programming on Cuba's four state channels, whose offerings include courses in mathematics, nightly 90-minute pro-government debates, and local baseball games.

Miami-based commercial Spanish language stations are particularly popular, and their news and political programs -- many of them created by Cuban exiles -- are often as stridently anti-Castro as TV Marti's programming.

Granma said yesterday that many of those US channels, along with TV Marti, transmit a message that "is destabilizing and interventionist and forms part of the Bush administration plan aimed at destroying the revolution and with it the Cuban nation."

There is a government-approved satellite television service in Cuba, but it's offered only to resident foreigners, tourists, and a select group of officials, and subscribers need a special license to receive the Florida programming.

Under the new US plan, officials pay commercial stations in Florida to carry TV Marti programs. The stations are included in satellite television packages picked up by the clandestine receivers in Cuba.

Granma's story reflected the grass-roots nature of satellite piracy in Cuba, where private business is tightly restricted to promote social and economic equality: Three culprits were caught in a small bicycle tire repair shop in Havana where satellite dishes were made. Also seized were materials to build 30 dishes, metal-cutting equipment, coaxial cable, and paint.