Over the past 20 years, the U.S. has spent half a billion dollars to beam anti-Castro propaganda into the homes of Cubans via Radio and TV Martí. Earlier this year, Congress boosted the stations’ budget, and in the midst of Fidel’s convalescence, the stations have increased their programming hours. All this despite the fact that hardly anybody in Cuba is tuning in. Bob talks to Penn State communications professor John Nichols about the broadcasting boondoggle.
BOB GARFIELD: While American journalists work to get the story out of Cuba, the American government is trying to get its story in. Its vehicles are Radio Marti and TV Marti, stations that carry a mix of news and entertainment shows produced in Florida and designed to show Cubans why their government is bad for them. Last week the leadership handover was front and center on TV Marti's satire show, "The Office of the Chief." In the chair normally occupied by Fidel was Raul Castro, waxing about his 59 luxury homes and barking orders at his staff. [TELEVISION CLIP – SPANISH]:
INTERPRETER: Speaking of lobster, Adela, go find me some lunch, just like it's fixed for my brother, with the finest ham, cold lobster with mayonnaise – and don't forget, also whiskey! [LAUGHS] [SPANISH]
"REPORTER": Thank you, general. Listen, do you prefer that I use the slogan "Fatherland or Death" or "Always Towards Victory?"
INTERPRETER: No. I prefer "Black Label"! [LAUGHTER] [END TV CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: The Cuban government isn't laughing. For years, it's insisted the penetration of their airwaves violates international law. But the real joke may be on the Americans, because while the U.S. has spent close to a half billion dollars on TV and Radio Marti, the Cuban government has managed to effectively block the transmission signal, at least on the TV side. Viewership on the island is estimated to be a third of one percent. One study several years ago found that nine out of ten Cubans had never even heard of the channel. John Nichols is a communications professor at Penn State University and a long-time critic of the stations. He joins us now. John, welcome to the show.
JOHN NICHOLS: Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: I gather that the model is Radio Free Europe, but one thing about Radio Free Europe is that, you know, by most accounts, I think that while it was a propaganda channel for the United States government, the news was presented in an unpoliticized way, I guess under the theory that just the access to the outside world was, you know, a sufficient enticement for the imprisoned populace of the Eastern Bloc. Can the same be said of the broadcasts going into Cuba?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, there's no question that the Radio and TV Marti broadcasts are highly politicized and have become even more so in recent years. When the station was first established, it was in Washington and it was under some significant U.S. government control. In recent years, they've moved the operations to Miami, and it's truly become captive of the shrill Cuban exile community. And, of course, the people still on the island, they're not idiots. They figured this out quite quickly, and that's part of the reason why the audience has dropped like a stone. When Radio Marti first went on the air, Cubans tuned in, in fairly large numbers, and then after the novelty wore off and they got an idea about the ideological position and, really, the hostile nature of the broadcasts, then they tuned out.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, you know, here's another possible explanation for the low listenership. If you get caught listening to Radio and TV Marti, or any other foreign broadcast in Cuba, you could be in a whole lot of trouble, no?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, it's definitely frowned upon, there is no question about that. But the Cuban people are not as isolated as you might think. I mean, there are all sorts of other news sources that are available to them, and they take advantage of it without any penalty by the government. I mean, they could receive broadcasts from Mexico. They could receive broadcasts from the Dominican Republic. There's a fair number of shortwave receivers on the island. They listen to the BBC from London and so on. So it does not follow, just because the Cuban people don't find the Castro-dominated media system on the island to be credible, it doesn't automatically follow that they therefore will embrace the voice of the Cuban exile community in South Florida.
BOB GARFIELD: So in response to the overwhelming success of the project and the jamming by the Cuban government, the United States has just appropriated another 10 million dollars, on top of the 27-million-dollar annual budget for these two operations, for an airplane that is supposed to fly nearer to the Cuban coast and therefore to defeat the jamming of the TV signal. How in the world did they get that 10 million dollars at a time when everything else in the budget is being cut way back?
JOHN NICHOLS: The Cuban exile community that are strong advocates for these stations and which populate most of the positions at the station -- the Cuban exile community is the largest voting block in the state of Florida, which is a swing state, which has decided one of the last presidential elections. And so it has very little to do with Cuba and U.S.-Cuban relations, and it has a great deal to do with currying favor with the domestic political constituency.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, apart from full employment for Cuban exiles in the broadcast business, has Radio or TV Marti done anything positive, by your lights?
JOHN NICHOLS: Positive? Well, the only thing that it really has accomplished is that it's complicated the relationship between the United States and Cuba. And, I mean, if the unstated intent of TV Marti is to raise the level of conflict between the two countries, then it's been very successful, even though TV Marti is not seen on the island.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, John. Thank you very much.
JOHN NICHOLS: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: John Nichols is a professor of communications at Penn State University. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, prostitution Hollywood style, and the fine art of reading movie blurbs. This is On the Media from NPR.