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Radio and TV Martí, U.S. Broadcasters for Cuba, Face New Obstacles

New York Times, March 24, 2015

By Lizette Alvarez

The rat-a-tat Cuban-inflected Spanish of the two Radio Martí hosts ricocheted back and forth during “Revoltillo,” a show laced with humor that airs classified ads posted in Cuba on a Craigslist-style website called Revolico.

Recorded here but aimed at an audience in Cuba, where Internet access is severely limited and the local news media are tightly controlled and censored, the show presents snippets of life on the island, like examples of the recently unleashed zeal for private enterprise. So one of the hosts, as part of an effort to bolster Cuba’s fledgling independent businesses, recently promoted “Hilda in Havana,” who is offering desserts and decorations for events and restaurants. Next up was a listing from a Havana man peddling his churro cart.

Down the hall, employees burned DVDs with news and features about Cuba, often reported by journalists in Cuba: housing travails, the latest small-business ventures (public bathrooms in private homes, 25 cents for a quick stop, 50 cents for longer visits), dissident detentions, how to find the rare Wi-Fi hot spots.

Every month, nearly 15,000 DVDs are distributed in Cuba and circulated through flash drives, an end-run around Cuba’s knack for jamming Martí television and radio signals. The goal, as always, is for the Martís, operations of the United States government, to provide news and information about Cuba to Cubans without Cuban censorship.

But three decades after becoming a Cold War staple — regularly criticized for anti-Castro, one-dimensional slant and advocacy — Radio and TV Martí are at a crossroads, scrambling to stay relevant as the relationship between Cuba and the United States inches toward a thaw.

At their headquarters in Miami, the Martís try to keep pace with changing technology and habits on the island, greater competition and the longstanding concerns of federal watchdogs.

Their biggest challenge, as always, remains not just enticing Cubans with better programming, particularly at a time when there are better offerings; Cubans now use flash drives that are loaded with television shows and movies from satellite dishes and sold on the black market. Another obstacle is that Radio and TV Martí are illegal and often blocked on the island.

“The decision about what to do should not be based on diplomatic relations but on the lack of a free flow of information into Cuba — and that has not changed,” said Carlos A. García-Pérez, the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which is part of an independent federal agency that oversees Radio and TV Martí. “Our work is even more important now.”

No one disputes the success of the Martís in one respect: angering the Castro brothers, who have long viewed the transmissions as violations of international norms. In January, President Raúl Castro called for an end to the Martís as a condition for normalizing relations with the United States.

“The one thing that has kept it alive with policy makers is the absolute antagonism of the Cuban regime for this broadcasting venture,” said Helle C. Dale, who has studied the Martís for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

But the Martís, with a budget of $27 million, have critics that include former American diplomats in Cuba. Opponents have long considered them taxpayer-funded relics controlled by Cuban exiles that too often slide into propaganda, which has damaged their credibility in the past.

The Cuban American National Foundation, a once-monolithic lobbying group of Cuban exiles, helped persuade the Reagan administration to establish Radio Martí in 1983. It started broadcasting in 1985, and TV Martí began in 1990. The foundation’s influence over the Martís remains strong, experts said.

Through the years, reports by congressional staff members and federal agencies, like the Inspector General for the State Department, have delivered stinging assessments; the most recent report came last summer. They have accused the Martís of “a lack of balance, fairness and objectivity,” of cronyism, malfeasance and, most recently, low employee morale. A frequent source of displeasure was the millions spent until recently on an aerostat balloon and a plane to try to transmit TV signals to Cuba. The project was a failure.

“There have only been costs, and zero benefits,” said John S. Nichols, a specialist in international communications at Penn State University who has studied the Martís. “And it became a flash point that caused some serious problems in the U.S.-Cuba relationship.”

In Congress, where the Martís have champions and detractors, Representative Betty McCollum, Democrat of Minnesota, reintroduced legislation this year to eliminate them.

While Obama administration officials support the Martís, they are eager to cut the Office of Cuba Broadcasting loose from the federal mantle.

In its budget for next year, the administration proposed consolidating the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and Voice of America’s Spanish-language programs, turning them into a nonprofit. The organization would be funded by federal grants, with federal oversight, but would not be part of the government. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which gained prominence during the Soviet era and served as the model for the Martís, has long operated this way, as a “grantee.”

Supporters said the change would make the Martís more flexible. But Cuban-American lawmakers in Congress say the shift would weaken the government’s commitment to the broadcasts.

“Its mission must remain true to its principles from when it was founded by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 and to its aim at promoting freedom and democracy,” said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican.

Still, there is little danger that the Martís will lose funding altogether. “It is more important now than ever, especially as you get to this openness stage,” said Michael P. Meehan, a Democrat who until recently served as a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency that oversees the Martís.

At the Martí headquarters, Mr. García-Pérez, who took over in 2010, said he had focused on diversifying coverage of Cuba and ramping up a Martí website. Most important, he said, is that the Martís are bringing more Cubans into the conversation through video, articles, texts, blogs and social media. Last year, Martí’s website drew 3.9 million visits, almost half from outside the United States.

Another goal was to lift journalistic standards, he said, particularly an attempt to offer more diverse views of Cuban life and United States foreign policy. Reporters now call the Cuban government to get its response for certain stories. There are still slips. In a 2012 Martí editorial, Mr. García-Pérez, speaking for the American government, called the cardinal in Cuba, Jaime Ortega, a “government lackey.” Mr. García-Pérez said he did not regret the word choice, which drew sharp criticism from some members of Congress.

The Martís also have expanded their cadre of journalists in Cuba who file videos and articles, with their names made public at great risk. Some of those interviewed by the reporters are also identified, a sign of diminishing fear. Citizens can post their own blogs and news items through features like “Reporta Cuba,” which often spreads news of detentions.

And Piramideo, a separate social network created by the Martís, allows Cubans to use cellphones or email accounts to gain access to a site that circumvents government restrictions. From there, they can send messages to hundreds of Cubans in Cuba about nearly anything.

How many people can receive or choose to pay attention to the Martís is unclear. Satellite dishes have made the Martís more available to Cubans, Mr. García-Pérez said. Past surveys have indicated that the overall audience is tiny — as low as 2 percent of the island’s population, although measuring audience size in Cuba is nearly impossible. Mr. García-Pérez said he knows that Cubans look and listen because they send email, text and call in to the programs and reporters.

In Miami, where gothic power struggles among exiles over the Martís still play out, there is some skepticism about the rush into digital communications at the expense of broadcast radio. Radio can evade jams more readily, and it is the most effective way to reach Cubans. Too much emphasis on digital media may doom the Martís, some say, because the vast majority of Cubans lack Internet access at home.

“In Cuba, there are no new platforms because in Cuba there is practically no Internet; that is not the way to penetrate,” said Roberto Rodríguez Tejera, director of Radio Martí during the Clinton administration. “It’s not the present; it’s not even the near future.”

Read full article: New York Times, March 24, 2015