HAVANA – For the past three decades, Brazilian “telenovelas” have helped Cubans forget their litany of woes for an hour a day. But today, dozens of South Korean soap operas are earning wide audiences.
Following in the footsteps of South Korean films and K-pop, “doramas” — South Korean soaps dubbed into Spanish — first appeared on Cuban televisions earlier this year.
“Queen of Housewives,” “My Fair Lady,” “Dream High” and, for the past month, “Secret Garden,” are all winning fans on the communist-run island.
Dozens of other South Korean shows are being passed around in digital form on USB flash drives, a common way for Cubans to spread information because of the lack of widespread Internet access.
“South Korean shows are selling the best lately. They are easy to follow and very funny,” said Yosmely Batista, a 21-year-old who runs a film and TV series stall out of his apartment in Havana’s Centro neighborhood.
“Why are they so successful, given all the cultural differences between South Koreans and Cubans? I suppose because it’s so foreign — they hardly ever kiss on South Korean shows!” says Batista.
On offer at his home shop: about 60 TV shows, half of them from South America (Brazil, Colombia and Mexico) and the other half from Seoul.
Laura, a 13-year-old schoolgirl, says she has downloaded 24 Korean shows onto her computer, but has only watched nine of them so far.
“Boys Over Flowers” is the most popular among her classmates, she says.
“I just love them, they are short and really different,” the teen explains.
South Korean soaps, which echo the melodrama of Latin-American telenovelas, have allowed Cubans to see a totally foreign world: officially, Havana only has diplomatic relations with North Korea.
“Koreans and Cubans have a lot in common,” South Korean singer Yoon Sang-hyun, better known in Cuba for his leading role on “My Fair Lady,” said during a recent trip to Cuba.
“A bit of comedy, a bit of drama, some romance, but never anything very serious,” says the singer-actor in explaining South Korean soaps. “Just real-life relationships.”
But Brazilian telenovelas have not lost their fan base just yet.
“The Brazilian shows are the best and ‘Brazil Avenue’ keeps me glued to the screen,” admits 64-year-old housewife Susana Suarez, who says she has never missed an episode since “Malu” and “Slave Isaura” were first shown in the 1980s.
Four shows are currently vying for the top spot among Cuban viewers: “Secret Garden,” “Brazil Avenue,” Argentina’s “Stolen Lives” and Cuba’s own “Lands of Fire.”
Like many Cubans, Suarez — who lives on a pension of $8 a month — says soap operas are her daily “therapy.”
“You can stop worrying about all your problems, you forget everything, at least for a little while,” she says.
“Here in Cuba, you’re under stress every day,” Suarez adds, admitting she spends two hours a day watching her programs.
“Among neighbors, we’d rather talk about TV shows than talk about real life,” said 32-year-old book editor Yaima Rosaen.