Radio Martí Turns 30 – But Is Anyone In Cuba Listening?
By WILSON SAYRE
May 20, 1985: Ronald Reagan was president. Madonna was topping the
charts. And Radio Martí went on the air.
Listen Listening...4:42 Click here to listen to the audio version of
this story. The Miami-based, federally-funded station began beaming
Spanish-language news and entertainment into communist Cuba 30 years ago
today. It was a sort of tropical version of Radio Free Europe – a Cold
War effort to transmit information beyond the control of the island's
totalitarian Castro regime.
But three decades later – and especially as the U.S. and Cuba now
normalize relations – do enough of the 11 million people on that island
tune in to Radio Martí and TV Martí to justify their current, combined
$27 million budget?
It's a question few people in Washington or Miami were asking when the
pro-democracy project was launched.
Most Cuban exiles had long since given up on the prospect of military
intervention to rid Cuba of the Castros. Still, they insisted the U.S.
government do something. And thanks to their voting clout, the feds
responded with a compromise both the Beltway and South Florida could
live with, a U.S.-run news operation targeted to Cubans.
"Much of U.S. Cuban policy is not about Cuba, it's about domestic U.S.
politics," says John Nichols, an international communications expert at
Penn State University. "Radio Martí was a really good compromise between
the doves and the hawks."
Nichols, who has followed Radio Martí since its inception, says the hope
was that information could be a weapon to destabilize the Castro regime
at a relatively low cost.
I seldom listen to Radio Marti. Even when you do, it's difficult because
the frequency is often blocked. -Camilo, a Cuban radio listener
But this of course did not go over well with the Cuban government. For
one thing, the name: the 19th-century writer and independence leader
José Martí was arguably Cuba's most revered hero.
"Castro became personally involved," Nichols recalls. "I personally
talked to him about this. He was very offended by the name 'Martí.' He
felt that it was defiling the name of the Cuban national hero."
Cuba, as a result, has tried to block the signal over the years and has
made it illegal for anyone to listen to it.
Nevertheless, argues Carlos García-Pérez, director of the U.S. Office of
Cuba Broadcasting, which runs Radio Martí, "what better gift can you
give anyone than to provide you information so that you can make
educated decisions about your daily life and your future? That's priceless."
García-Pérez insists Radio Martí is actually more important than ever
even as the relationship between the two former Cold War foes thaws.
After all, one of President Obama's priorities under the new engagement
policy is to get more information to Cubans.
"If we accomplish our mission," says García-Pérez, "There will be a free
press, a commercial operation independent from the government."
Today, Radio Martí still broadcasts 24 hours, seven days a week. Its
studios, along with TV Marti's, are in Doral surrounded by prison-like
security that includes barbed wire and a security checkpoint.
Their broadcasts are sent down to a transmitter in the Keys which then
beams them across the Florida Straits.
But from there...well, only sketchy data exists on what happens with
No one has really been able to figure out the size of Radio Martí's
actual audience. But one thing seems certain: it's not very big.
Take, for example, Camilo, a man in his 30s who lives in Cuba. (We're
not using his real name to protect his identity.) Camilo answered WLRN's
questions through a family member visiting the island; and he said that
while he does listen sometimes to programs on an old Soviet radio he
owns, he hardly ever tunes in to foreign radio.
"I very seldom listen to Radio Martí," he said. "And even when you do,
it's difficult because the frequency is often blocked."
By most accounts, Camilo's answer is pretty typical.
A 2009 Government Accountability Office report says the "best available
research suggests that Radio and TV Martí's audience is small," although
a more recent independent survey suggests a fifth of the Cuban
population hears it at some point during a typical week.
Over the years there has also been concern about the credibility of
Martí's news and op-ed content. But that's something Radio Martís
García-Perez insists is not an issue today.
Despite Cuba's continued demands to take Martí off the air, Roberta
Jacobson, the State Department's lead diplomat in Latin America, says
that's not happening.
"The Cuban government has always raised Radio and TV Martí, and they
raise them again as part of the list of things that they object to in
the normalization talks," Jacobson told Congress recently. "But we have
no plans to end those."
But with continued concern over listenership, there are efforts now to
defund Marti's operations.
A U.S. House resolution called the "Stop Wasting Taxpayer Money on Cuba
Broadcasting Act" was introduced in January. And President Obama's
proposed budget prioritizes more modern telecommunications to get Cubans
Penn State's Nichols says that just makes sense.
"For communications to take place, there has to be a sender and
receiver," he says. "If only the sender is active, it doesn't make any
difference how loud you shout. It just doesn't work that way."
At least it hasn't for the past 30 years.
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