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'Radio Bemba'- word of mouth news for Cubans

Staying on top of events is no easy task for the average Cuban.

Cuba's communist government regulates the Internet as a controlled substance.  

At the same time, the state owns all domestic media outlets – managing 19 newspapers, 20 television stations and 87 radio outlets across the island.

But one domestic information source has slipped through the state's fingers: the traditional word on the street. Cubans even have a name for it: they call it "Radio Bemba."

Even  though most folks trust it as much, if not more, than what they read in the Communist Party's "Granma" newspaper, Radio Bemba is just Cuban slang for the rumor mill, the grapevine, street-side chitchat as news.

More times than not, some nugget of news rolling along Radio Bemba's "airwaves"  turns out to be right, or at least to contain a grain of truth.

The rumor mill that makes up Radio Bemba draws some of its energy from Spanish language television originating in the United States and entering thousands of Cuban homes on illegal cable or DIRECTV dishes. The shows that are especially popular are Telemundo's "Al Rojo Vivo" and Evening News with Pedro Sevcec

Other sources of news and information for Radio Bemba include the I-know-a-guy variety:

A few months back, my neighbor, Juan Carlos, warned me to fill up the tank of my car,

 "I know a guy who says there's a breakdown at the processing plant… Gasoline is going to run out by the weekend." He was only partly wrong. The gasoline lasted through the weekend, but ran out on Monday.

Another time, a different neighbor reported that the island had lost another top musician to the Florida glitter. "My cousin in Miami told me that he saw Issac Delgado at Publics," referring to a Florida supermarket chain.

Also true, and that was at least two weeks before Delgado's publicist officially announced that the musician had defected to Tampa with a signed album deal

Fueling Radio Bemba is the lack of entertainment news on Cuban TV where programming slants toward science shows, political talking heads and late-night movies.

So, for celebrity gossip, Radio Bemba is the only place to go.

And, just like in places that do thrive on celebrity news, Radio Bemba is prone to stretching the truth – the juicier, the better.

Ask Pedrito Calvo, the former lead singer for Los Van Van, Cuba's number one dance band. Back in the 1980s, when Calvo was a charismatic sex symbol, rumors circulated that he was infected with HIV. To set the record straight, Calvo recorded a song entitled "El Negro no Tiene Na'" (The Black Guy Doesn't Have Anything). He even went so far as to drive around town with that phrase painted on the side of his Volkswagen beetle.

Often only really source of information
But, gossip is only part of the picture. Radio Bemba is also about uncovering news the government aims to repress.

Last summer when a deadly outbreak of dengue fever spread across the island and made thousands ill, the government treated the epidemic as a state secret. There were no newspaper articles, no TV or radio reports and no public admissions until the disaster passed.

Shortly after the crisis hit, the health ministry mobilized an army of 300,000 to fumigate door-to-door and community-based doctors to check their patients for symptoms.

As you can imagine, word spread fast on Radio Bemba. It's pretty impossible to keep a secret with that many people involved.

On a lighter note, Alberto Santiago spends his afternoons in what's known as "la esquina caliente" (the hot corner) in Havana's Central Park. Radio Bemba, for Santiago and other baseball fanatics, is a "great source of news on Major League Baseball," which is ignored by the government press.

Today, Radio Bemba travels an unofficial path, but its origins lie in Fidel Castro's rebel army broadcasts from Cuba's eastern mountains. His transmitters reached only so far, so word of his exploits got passed along by word of mouth.

Then and now, Radio Bemba can exaggerate or change the news. But as comedian Carlos Ruiz de la Tejera points out, "It remains one of the most effective means of communication" in Cuba.