HAVANA - Atop a tattered Colonial-era building, the satellite dish received the signals for a Mexican soap opera on Univisión for relatives and friends in an apartment below.

Then, a break: 'And now, from South Florida . . . ' an anchorwoman intoned as she read an update on the stunning announcement of Fidel Castro's turning over power to his brother after surgery for internal bleeding.

Illegal but relatively widespread on this communist-ruled island, the TV satellite dishes are giving many Cubans some light relief and a view of the momentous events here very different from the government-monopolized media's propaganda.

'We watch the soap operas. We love Don Francisco, Sábado Gigante,' said Jorge, a rail-thin 34-year-old. ``And on the newscasts, we get the other points of views.'

Such broadcasts are widely and easily received throughout Latin America, the equivalent of DirecTV in the United States.

But in Cuba, TV satellite dishes are illegal without an almost impossible-to-obtain government permit. So people here build their own and often sell the signal to neighbors through homemade nets known as telarañas -- spiders' webs.

The small electronic components usually are smuggled in from the United States, and the dishes are built here. If the signals are encoded, relatives abroad can pay for the service as though it were for their own use, obtain the proper decoding procedures and pass them to Cuba.

While their exact number is not known because of the underground nature of the dishes, U.S. officials have estimated there are 10,000 to 30,000 -- an important source of outside information for Cubans in addition to the few Miami AM radio stations that can be heard here.

Cuban authorities severely jam the U.S. government's TV Martí broadcasts, and to a slightly lesser degree jam Radio Martí's AM and shortwave radio broadcasts.

These days, Cuban TV has been offering a mixture of sports shows, the nightly Round Table news program, a documentary on the revolution's late heroine, Celia Sánchez, and declarations of support for Fidel and Raúl Castro, the defense minister who temporarily holds the reins of power.

But through their satellite dishes, some Cubans have been able to see images of Cuban Americans dancing on the streets of Miami's Little Havana, doctors speculating on what exactly ails Fidel Castro, and analysts wondering why Raúl Castro still has not appeared in public.

Cubans say they pay $5 to $10 a month for the illegal cable hookups, a princely fee in a country where the average monthly salary is about $40, but a sum within reach of the many families that receive cash remittances from relatives abroad.

Not surprisingly, most of the people gathered in the Old Havana apartment on this night were reluctant to talk about how the foreign newscasts have affected their view of Fidel's Castro health crisis.

For a 25-year-old woman at the apartment, the criticisms of Fidel Castro she saw and heard on the TV were little match for the images of war in the Middle East.

'At least he takes care of us. . . . We could be living in a war zone,' said the woman, who, like everyone else interviewed, did not want to be identified because of fear of government sanctions for watching the illegal TV.

Only Jorge, the 34-year-old, agreed to talk a little bit about the satellite dish's impact on his viewing habits. On Thursday night, he said, he watched the Round Table program -- a tirade against anti-Castro exiles and the U.S. government -- and then switched to Univisión seconds later after the Round Table ended to catch the reaction in Miami.

Ernesto, a 39-year-old man encountered in another part of Havana, said the Univisión news reports have gained importance by informing Cubans on the island during the tense days since the announcement that their leader was temporarily surrendering power.

He said he watched excerpts of Juanita Castro talking to CNN in Miami about her very human concerns for her brother -- and was reassured about Miami.

'It made me feel good, like there I would have hope for my family,' he said.

But it's not all good news on the satellite dishes.

A 38-year-old man named Raúl said he pays $10 a month for an illegal TV hookup and keeps the cable hidden under the dirt in front of his house.

'They'll take away your TV and your appliances if they catch you watching' Univisión, he said.

His brother Miguel, 27, says the punishment may be worse now that Castro's health is in doubt.

'And now, since this happened, they'll probably put you in prison,' Miguel said.


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