U.S. anti-piracy move pulls TV plug in Cuba

DirecTV's security change negates booming illegal biz

HAVANA – The U.S. government believes Cubans should see more of the U.S. on TV, and for years, Cubans have been happily complying — cobbling together clandestine satellite systems to pick up everything from the World Series to soap operas.

No longer. Most of these systems have been silenced — not by Fidel Castro but by DirecTV’s war on TV piracy.

“We’re sad because we cannot reach our people,” says Crystal Larraondo, executive assistant for “Los Fonomemecos,” the Miami-based Cuban-American comedy team whose show was popular here.

In late April, DirecTV, based in El Segundo, Calif., changed its decoder cards to halt widespread piracy in the U.S. By chance, it knocked out most of Cuba’s pirates too.

Hans de Salas, research associate at Miami U’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American studies, calls it “an unexpected gift for the Castro government.”

But DirecTV had no choice but to go by the book, says Robert G. Mercer, its P.R. director.

“While we understand they have a different motivation than the individuals who are stealing our signal in the U.S., they are still receiving our programming without our authorization and in a part of the world where we do not have a license to operate,” he says.

The few Cubans who use the Dish TV satellite system of U.S.-based EchoStar aren’t yet affected, and EchoStar spokesman Steve Cox wouldn’t reveal details about possible security updates.

Shifting from DirecTV to Dish would require a different decoder box — one of the hardest pieces of TV hardware to obtain here.

The U.S. government’s Office of Cuban Broadcasting targets the island with its own station, Television Marti, but its broadcasts are jammed by Castro’s regime. It tried the satellite route, but few Cubans can pick up its signals, which use a different technology and satellite from those used by DirecTV. An antenna, decoder and counterfeit access card cost $700 to $1,200, depending on scarcity. That limits the dishes to those with a healthy supply of dollars. A typical Cuban makes about $20 a month. Yet enough money trickles into private hands from tourism and family abroad to finance a multimillion-dollar hidden TV industry.

It includes building or smuggling in satellite dishes, counterfeiting access cards, renting lines to neighbors and going door to door renting and collecting tapes of popular shows. Few Cubans will talk openly about the dishes: They’re strictly banned and police sometimes confiscate illegal antennas and fine their owners.