Radio, TV Marti Under Fire

Despite spending more than half a billion dollars over the last quarter century, U.S. government broadcasts to Cuba have gained only a tiny audience and have had virtually no effect on the island’s politics, according to a new report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Radio and TV Marti have failed to make any discernible inroads into Cuban society or to influence the Cuban government,” according to the report, which was prepared by the Committee’s Democratic staff and released Monday.

The report found that less than two percent of Cubans listen to Radio Marti, while virtually no Cubans at all see TV Marti’s programming due not only to the Castro government’s jamming of their signals, but also to widespread perception that the news carried on both media is not “objective.”

The 15-page report called for both stations to be moved from Miami to Washington, D.C., where they should be “subordinated” to the Voice of America (VOA), whose “journalistic standards” for news programming are more professional.

The report, which was released amid a continuing debate in Congress over major changes in the more than 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, was strongly denounced by hard-line anti-Castro lawmakers who have long championed both Radio and TV Marti and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) which oversees their operations.

“[Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman] John Kerry and his staff are out to kill OCB,” charged Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-born Florida Republican, in an interview with the Miami Herald. “They have always tried to kill it, and they continue to try to kill it,” he added.

But, citing the report’s finding’s, Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who serves on the Committee, called on President Barack Obama to eliminate all funding for both operations.

“This programming is a relic of the Cold War, falls short of journalistic standards, and is a prime example of wasteful government spending at a time when we should be reducing the deficit,” he said in a letter to Obama.

The report was released as a brief warming period in U.S.-Cuban relations that followed Obama’s inauguration last year, including his lifting of curbs imposed by President George W. Bush on family-related travel and remittances by Cuban Americans to their homeland, appears to have largely stalled over the past six months.

The two countries have resumed long-suspended talks on immigration, modestly expanded cultural and scientific exchanges, and conducted a remarkable cooperative initiative to provide support for Cuban doctors in Haiti after January’s devastating earthquake.

However, the death of a prominent political prisoner while on a hunger strike and the arrest and continued detention in Cuba of a U.S. aid contractor who was providing communications equipment to Jewish non-profit groups have tempered enthusiasm for deeper engagement in an already-cautious White House.

Congress is currently considering legislation that, if passed, would make it easier for U.S. farmers and livestock producers to sell their goods to Cuba and, more important, lift the longstanding ban on travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba.

The bill, the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act, currently has about 190 co-sponsors in the 435-member House of Representatives.

“It’s in shouting distance of winning on the floor,” according to Geoff Thale, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), “but it’s not clear yet that the leadership will let it go to the floor.”

A similar bill has some 40 co-sponsors in the Senate, but it could face serious parliamentary challenges there, he said. The administration is not lobbying either for or against the legislation, he noted.

The new report should be seen in the context of “an across-the-board challenge to the interests and structures that have maintained our Cuba policy for so long,” according to Thale.

Radio Marti, an initiative of the strongly anti-Castro Ronald Reagan administration, was launched in 1983, while TV Marti followed seven years later. Altogether, the two OCB initiatives, which have used balloon-borne transmitters and planes that broadcast from off the Florida coast, and private south Florida broadcasters, have cost the U.S. Treasury more than $630 million, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In 2009, the last year of the Bush administration, the COB received nearly $35 million from the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). That amount was reduced to $32.5 million this year, and the Obama administration has asked for $29.2 million for fiscal 2011, which begins Oct. 1.

Democrats in Congress, however, have called for further cuts, and some, like Feingold, have urged the complete elimination of TV Marti.

They are joined by many long-time observers of the broadcast operations. “At a minimum, I think TV Marti should be abolished,” said Phil Peters, a Cuba specialist at the Lexington Institute who worked for the State Department under President George H.W. Bush. “It’s a colossal waste of money, and it has no audience.”

“It was born at the beginning of the Cold War, and now we’re into the age of the Internet and Twitter. I’m just not convinced that radio and TV broadcasts are the best use of money to foster communications with Cuba,” he said, noting as well that the “media environment within Cuba has changed.”

Indeed, the report itself stressed that the quality of domestic TV programming in Cuba had improved recently and included foreign entertainment programs, including popular U.S. TV shows such as The Sopranos and Grey’s Anatomy, and that CNN Espanol was now being run on Cuban television.

“The idea that political broadcasts from the U.S. government are going to break through this is pretty far-fetched,” Peters said.

The new report, which was based on previous studies, including a similarly critical 2009 report by Congress’ General Accounting Office and interviews with OCB staff, among others, found that the OCB staff “failed to adhere to generally accepted journalistic standards” and sometimes broadcast “unsubstantiated reports from Cuba as legitimate news stories” and used “offensive and incendiary language in news broadcasts.”

The report said “allegations of cronyism and malfeasance” within OCB continued to haunt operations there and “many senior-level OCB officials were granted their positions because of their personal connections.”

Wayne Smith, the former head of the U.S. interests section in Havana in the late 1970s until 1981 and a critic of Radio Marti since its birth, said the Obama administration should have “taken TV Marti off the air within weeks” of his inauguration and then moved Radio Marti back to VOA.

He recalled a time before Radio Marti when “we would go to conferences with Cuban officials on the bus, and everyone was listening to VOA. But once they took VOA off the air, that was the end.”

“Radio and TV Marti have been a fiasco from the beginning, because it’s propaganda. VOA was very careful; they had their point of view, but they were careful to have sources and be balanced. That’s not true of the [OCB]. They just give their point of view, and their point of view is that of right-wing Cuban exiles.”

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.