Video: TV to Cuba: A campaign or a waste?

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/9/2007 5:59:41 PM ET 2007-10-09T21:59:41

Along a busy highway near the Miami International Airport, a stark yellow building sits behind a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. An American flag flies from the roof, and a sign warns that this is U.S. property, no trespassing.

Inside the building, rapid-fire Spanish fills the hallways. Busy reporters and producers work at desks spread across a large newsroom. In radio and television studios down the hall, anchors sit before microphones and cameras to broadcast live on-air, getting out the latest word to whomever might be listening in Cuba.

This is the headquarters for Radio Marti and TV Marti, which are U.S. government-operated stations that beam Spanish-language news, opinions, Major League Baseball, satire and messages of freedom and democracy to the Cuban population. Included are taped appearances from President Bush and Secretary of State Rice, and a comedy show featuring a bumbling Fidel Castro look-alike.

"The mission is to be a window to the outside world to the people of Cuba, people who live in a closed, repressed society, where the state controls all the media," said Alberto Mascaro, the chief of staff for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which overseas Radio and TV Marti.

"We are giving a service to people who don't have the freedom and democracy that we all enjoy," he said.

Critics, though, argue that relatively few Cubans listen to Radio Marti, and even fewer can actually see TV Marti, despite the nearly $600 million the U.S. government has spent on the two operations since the mid-1980's.

"It's just not a good bargain for the taxpayers, it's not doing us much good," said U.S. representative Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona. "The trouble is it just doesn't reach the Cuban people."

Difficult signals to find in Cuba
Throughout Havana, and much of the rest of Cuba, TV antennas of all shapes and sizes, and in varying degrees of repair, fill the sky. But, most Cubans can only watch programs strictly controlled by the Cuban government.

While an illegal cottage industry has sprung up to receive and quietly distribute pirated DIRECTV satellite programs from the United States, it's done at the risk of arrest and imprisonment during police crackdowns.

The Cuban government has also installed sophisticated electronic jamming equipment to override unwanted radio and TV signals.

For those reasons, TV Marti is difficult to find in most areas of Cuba, especially around Havana where the jamming efforts are concentrated. In an apartment there, the Garcia family gathered around an old television set and tried to find the U.S. station by switching to the channels, but outside the Cuban government broadcasts could only find snowy images on the screen.

"It's a very weak signal," said John Nichols, a professor of communications at Penn State University, and a long-time critic of Radio and TV Marti. "All Castro has to do is sneeze on it, and it's badly disrupted."

Arnaldo Coro, a Cuban professor at Havana's Jose Marti International Journalism Institute, claimed the Radio Marti signal has also fallen victim to "physics" and "Cuban ingenuity."

"Cuban engineers have been able to develop the way of using the same radio frequency channels in such a way as to absolutely block the presence of the foreign station from coming into the Cuban territory," he said.

Is the signal getting stronger?
To combat the Cuban signal-jamming efforts, TV Marti now uses aircraft fitted with special electronic broadcasting equipment to fly north of the Cuban coast and beam its signal to the island. This is believed to be much more effective than the previous method of using an aerostat balloon tethered in the Florida Keys.

TV Marti also contracts with a Miami-area TV station to run its evening newscasts so they can be included in the DIRECTV satellite package, in the hope that at least some inventive Cubans can see the U.S. government programming that way.

Standing before a map of Cuba, Mascaro, the chief of staff, pointed to areas in northern Cuba outside Havana where, he insisted, the TV broadcast signal can be seen. "I think now with these new broadcast platforms that we have--the planes and so forth--I think that audience got substantially larger," he said.

"We have phone calls, e-mails, we even have pictures of people watching TV Marti, it's pretty amazing," he said.

A report to Congress, however, based on a June 2005 telephone survey in Cuba suggested a much bleaker picture. It showed respondents in fewer than one-percent of Cuban households reported seeing TV Marti during the past year.

Radio Marti fared a bit better, with nine-percent of respondents saying they had heard its broadcasts during the year. However, the report also said Radio Marti listenership had decreased over the past 15 years, especially after the Cuban government obtained "more effective shortwave jamming equipment from China."

At Penn State, Nichols argued the TV and Radio Marti broadcasts are not only expensive but harmful to the U.S. image abroad. "They're getting zero bang for their buck," he said. "It's counterproductive to U.S. foreign policy interests. It's embarrassing ourselves to the rest of the world, and we're in violation of international law by broadcasting it."

A passionate defense
In response to the critics, Mascaro argued that any assessment of the number of radio listeners and TV viewers in Cuba is inherently flawed, because of the difficulties in gathering accurate poll information in such a controlled society.

At the same time, he pointed to a U.S. State Department inspection report that suggested TV Marti viewership might actually be rising now, because of the aircraft broadcasts. And he said surveys taken by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, and interviews with Cuban immigrants recently arriving in the United States suggest that TV Marti is being seen, and that Radio Marti is a well-known brand name.

While conceding that even those methods are potentially inaccurate, Mascaro said perhaps the best barometer of TV and Radio Marti's impact is the harsh reaction to them from the Cuban government, itself.

"Ifwe were not effective, they would not protest," he said. "For many years, TV Marti was not even talked about within the Cuban media. When the planes started flying, when we got on DIRECTV, they started yelling about it. That to me is a clear measure of effectiveness."

Mascaro also pointed out that the stations broadcasting to Cuba are funded by Congress and follow U.S. law. He also argued that when Fidel Castro dies, Radio and TV Marti will play an even more important role in helping to shape the transition, and will be seen in the future the same way as the Voice of America was in past decades.

"The effectiveness of broadcasting into the eastern bloc nations, into Russia, was not known until afterwards, and I think we'll see the same thing," he predicted.

Critics blame Cuban-American politics
Critics of Radio and TV Marti argued that in two decades on the air the U.S. government broadcasts have had no appreciable impact on Cuban political or social conditions. They scoffed at the argument that because the Cuban government is upset with them, it must mean the programs are effective.

"We've seen half a billion dollars over the past 20 some years spent on these programs with little or nothing to show for it," said Rep. Flake. "Nobody seems brave enough to break out and say, you know this is a waste, let's change our policy."

A common theme heard among the critics is the claim that Radio and TV Marti are more about Cuban-American politics in South Florida, securing votes and providing jobs than in effectively informing the Cuban people.

"It's not objective news and information. It's a political point of view of the exiles in South Florida," said Nichols. "I think the real purpose, though, was to curry favor with a very important U.S. domestic political constituency , the Cuban-exile community that is all-important in presidential elections."

Earlier this year, Representative William Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat, and a subcommittee chairman for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, promised to hold hearings on the content and funding of Radio and TV Marti. So far, however, nothing has materialized.

With the presidential campaign in full swing, and the Democratic front-runner, Senator Hillary Clinton, having stated her support for the broadcasts to Cuba, observers predicted it is unlikely now that hearings will be scheduled anytime soon.

A years-long argument
In defending the Radio and TV Marti effort, Mascaro, from The Office of Cuban Broadcasting, said, "Our personal view is, yes, it's worth every dime."

He also vehemently denied the political argument. "As far as the critics who say that, you know, we're feeding the exile community or throwing a bone to the exile community, I say that's completely false."

But, the opponents of the broadcasts are equally firm in their positions. "It's a mess. It really is a mess, but it creates jobs down there, and so there's a political element, but it's not very valuable to the taxpayers," said Flake. "Republicans have used it lately, but Democrats have used this issue as well to mine for voters."

It's an argument that has been waged for years, with passionate defenders describing Radio and TV Marti as important voices of freedom. Opponents downplay them as expensive failures and a Fleecing of America.

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