Kassandra: The Worldwide Success of a Venezuelan Telenovela

2024-02-24 12:30:38

image source, Círculo Rojo Editorial


“Kassandra” was a worldwide successful Venezuelan telenovela starring Coraima Torres, Osvaldo Ríos (photo) and Henry Soto.

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When in October 1992 the Venezuelan channel RCTV premiered the soap opera “Kassandra” in its afternoons, the success was immediate.

The story of a young woman who had been exchanged as a baby and given to a poor, nomadic gypsy family that lived in a circus, who at 18 returns to her hometown, where her original millionaire family lives, and discovers her true story. , captivated Venezuelans with its 150 chapters.

It was the third time that this story written by Cuban Delia Fiallo, the “mother of the Latin American soap opera” and creator of hits like “Cristal” and “Esmeralda”, reached the Venezuelan small screen.

This young woman, who had been Gisela – played by Rebeca González – in the original 1973 version called “Peregrina”, and who later was Raiza (Catherine Fulop) in “The Circus Girl” in 1988, returned under the name of Kassandra played by Coraima Torres.

“At that time I didn’t have the feeling that my life was going to change. I was 17 years old. In fact, I traveled with my sister to meet the writer because she was a minor. It was a great challenge. I wanted to prove myself when she told me that the role was mine. I had a feeling of fear and possibility,” Torres told the BBC’s Witness History radio programme.

The actress captivated the audience.

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A Japanese poster for the soap opera “Kassandra” at Delia Fiallo’s home in 2018. On the right, Delia Fiallo.

So much so that the soap opera began to be exported to other Spanish-speaking countries and then transcended the barrier of the Latin world to reach more than 100 countries.

It was the 1990s and the soap opera craze reached everyone.

Those melodramatic Latin American fictions, with their exaggerated stories of love, heartbreak, and the dream of going from poverty to riches, were a global phenomenon.

Antonio Páez was the executive vice president of Coral Pictures, a subsidiary of RCTV in Caracas and Miami, and worldwide distributor of its soap operas.

“All the novels of that time were very popular and, in fact, I opened several markets such as China or Russia. Later the novels were very popular, for example, in Israel. We were popular all over the world,” Páez told the BBC.

“And we learned that there were groups that traveled to the borders of the countries where we licensed the product just to hear or find out what the story was, or so they could sneak in there and watch some episodes,” said the former Coral Pictures executive.

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Puerto Rican actor Osvaldo Ríos was 32 years old when he starred in “Kassandra.”

“Kassandra” was sold to countries such as the United States, Romania, Greece, Italy and Russia and also to the members of the former Yugoslavia.

In 1997, “Kassandra” had the inhabitants of the Republika Srpska in suspense, the entity that together with the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina makes up the European country of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

That region had come from years of war and political and social upheavals, and the conflict was still not resolved.

“It was a very tumultuous time and, in fact, I discovered that this novel paralyzed that entire area,” Páez said.

“Regardless of what people were experiencing, at least for an hour they could disconnect from the harsh, cruel and bloody reality they were living to immerse themselves in Kassandra’s love story,” said the protagonist of the soap opera.

The Bosnian War

Between 1991 and 1992 Yugoslavia disintegrated and five countries remained in that territory: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (which today are Montenegro, Serbia and the partially recognized as independent state of Kosovo).

But in 1992 an internal war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a territory inhabited by three ethnic groups – Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs – which ended in December 1995 with the intervention of the United States, NATO, and the signing of the Agreements of Dayton.

A fragile peace remained after the brutal war ended, and by 1997 rival political factions in Republika Srpska – those led by the Bosnian Serb president from 1992 to mid-1996, Radovan Karadžić, and those of the president who succeeded him, Biljana Plavšić – threatened stability.

The de facto capital of Republika Srpska had been established in Banja Luka, the second largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while Karadžić had his stronghold in Pale, near Sarajevo.

The nationalist Karadžić, at the time, was accused of committing war crimes, while Plavšić was backed and supported by the United States.

The state television channel SRT, the one with the greatest influence on the population, was in Pale, was controlled by Karadžić and had repeaters throughout the territory.

Through it, Karadžić and his allies sent messages against the peacekeepers installed by NATO to the Bosnian Serbs and issued propaganda to speak ill of the United States, Europe and the Dayton Accords.

Until one day in August 1997, Plavšić supporters took control of the SRT repeater in Banja Luka and cut off the signal.

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Biljana Plavšić was president of Republika Srpska between 1996 and 1998, and like her predecessor Radovan Karadžić was convicted of crimes against humanity.

When it returned to the air, it was in the hands of the Plavšić government and stopped repeating the programs coming from Pale.

But the channel immediately encountered a problem: it did not have the episodes of “Kassandra” so that the audience could follow the story that they were so passionate about.

That worried not only within the channel, but also the United States government.

The intervention of the United States

In the State Department of the Clinton administration, they feared that the fact that Bosnian Serbs could not continue watching their favorite soap opera at that time would generate social unrest, disapproval and, ultimately, fuel internal fighting and undermine the Plavšić government.

That was why a State Department official called Antonio Páez.

“My secretary told me that I had a call from the United States Department of State. ‘Excuse me?'” Páez asked him in disbelief, and asked him to let him know.

“I started talking to a guy who said, ‘Listen, I can’t even tell you my name right now. There’s a public television station and you have a show that’s selling in this area. We really want to keep it on the air because was taken down and the war has escalated because of it, so we need your help to get it back on the air,'” he said.

Páez called the station and after several attempts managed to speak with the manager.

“Yes, we really want to recover that novel. See how you can help us,” the Bosnian channel official told him.

Páez searched Coral Pictures’ records and found that they had never sold the broadcast rights to “Kassandra” to SRT.

So he called Bosnia again and they confessed that the Pale channel had been pirating the episodes from a station in Belgrade, Serbia, but that they couldn’t buy them because they didn’t have the money.

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American soldiers were part of NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the war.

Páez then tried to get the US State Department to pay for the soap opera, since they were the ones interested in having it broadcast again. But he got a negative response.

“No, you can’t see us participating in any way in all of this,” a US official replied.

Finally, the Coral Pictures executive decided that, if it was so important, they would donate the series to them.

“It was an absolute huge success there and everything calmed down. It was a great moment to be part of the tremendous power that novels had around the world,” he said.

Rock stars

“Kassandra” returned to the air and even in 1998 Coraima Torres and her co-stars traveled to Macedonia, where they were treated like rock stars.

“It’s hard to compare it, but it was like when the Beatles came to town. Everyone went crazy and they actually passed out at these shows and screamed. And there’s a whole group of babies from that time, they were all called Kassandra. And it was like that for many years,” Páez explained to the BBC.

Coraima Torres was cheered by thousands of fans at Macedonia’s national football stadium, where she took the stage in an open-top car accompanied by music and fireworks. The event was broadcast in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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Coraima Torres in 1996.

“My representative tells me: they are inviting us. What am I going to do? I’m not a singer. There were people everywhere, from all generations. All those people together, all in the streets. There was a lot of excitement, noise and music. There was “a moment of joy, the fireworks, the people screaming, the balloons and me receiving all that love. It was a unique moment for me,” the actress recalled.

“They fell in love with the story and I think it brought them peace and a sense of normality. The rags-to-riches story always captures people and to see a person like Coraima who had a lot of difficulties in her early years, who treated her very bad and she was resurrected and became queen, it is beautiful, because it gives hope to people. I feel blessed to have been able to help a little and I feel that if we were able to contribute by simply saving some lives. We were happy to be able to do it,” he said for his Paez part.

“I’ve never heard of a TV show being so popular that it actually helped contribute to peace. That’s what it did. In fact, it contributed to peace in the region,” he added.

Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina remained and NATO peacekeepers withdrew in 2004.

With information from Johnathan I’Anson.

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