Radio and TV Martí have roles to play as Cuba enters a new era
By A. Ross Johnson and S. Enders Wimbush January 9 at 8:08 PM
A. Ross Johnson, a fellow at the Wilson Center and the Hoover
Institution, was director of Radio Free Europe from 1988 to 1991. S.
Enders Wimbush was director of Radio Liberty from 1987 to 1993 and a
member of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors from 2010 to 2012.
When the Berlin Wall came down, Eastern Europe liberated itself and the
Soviet Union collapsed, the role of U.S. international broadcasting was
universally recognized. In the wake of these world-changing events,
Václav Havel, Lech Walesa, Boris Yeltsin and other new leaders insisted
that Radio Free Europe (RFE), Radio Liberty (RL) and the Voice of
America were central to the peaceful democratic transitions in their
countries. Western broadcasts provided essential information to all
those dedicated to change and helped accelerate that change. Cuba is
approaching such a moment, and once again the United States has a
powerful instrument in place to help shape the outcome.
Miami-based Radio and TV Martí was established in 1984 on the model of
RFE and RL as a “surrogate” broadcaster to provide accurate information
about developments in Cuba and the world otherwise denied to Cubans. The
RFE/RL experience suggests that Martí’s role will become more important
as diplomatic relations with Cuba are restored and cultural, educational
and economic ties with the United States expand. With domestic media
still tightly controlled, Cubans will turn to Martí for information on
civil society, human rights protests, local opposition blogs, travel
rules, economic developments, controversy within the regime — in short,
for all domestic news and with a focus on voices from Cuba about Cuba.
This comprehensive surrogate media role will not be performed by CNN or
other commercial media. Nor should it be viewed — as some U.S. diplomats
have viewed RFE and RL from time to time — as an irritant to improved
state-to-state ties. One day, when Cuba is as free and democratic as the
former communist countries of Eastern Europe with their own thriving
free media, Martí will not be needed. Until then, it can play a key role
in fostering peaceful democratic transition in Cuba.
Martí has impact. Once derided for its unsuccessful efforts to telecast
from an airplane flying just beyond Cuban airspace, TV Martí grounded
that plane in May 2013. Its programs are now carried 24/7 on Hispasat
satellite TV and on DirecTV, which penetrate not just Cuba but most of
Latin America. Martí distributes both DVDs — 59,000 in 2014, and
currently about 15,000 per month — and flash drives containing its radio
and TV programs throughout Cuba, where they are copied and distributed
by volunteer networks of activists, journalists, bloggers, members of
opposition political parties and churches. Martí launched Reporta Cuba
in May as a social platform that collects complaints and other
information through dozens of citizen reporters across the island. And
every day, Martí airs video packages produced on the island itself by
independent video journalists denied access to Cuban media.
Martí also reaches Cubans on the Internet, almost nonexistent in Cuba
only a few years ago. On the day President Obama announced his intention
to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, more than 27,000 visitors
visited martinoticias.com for news, analysis and context. The
president’s speech was broadcast live with simultaneous translation, and
when prisoner Alan Gross landed on U.S. soil, his news conference was
carried live to Cuba on Martí’s broadcast and Internet channels.
Martí programming is classic surrogate fare — information Cuban media
would carry if it were free. Martí reports on the Cuban economy,
including corruption, are among the only objective assessments anywhere.
Martí provides extensive coverage of women’s issues, and it covers
Cuba’s public health challenges. It devotes continual attention to the
activities of dissidents and human rights advocates — such as the famous
Ladies in White. News of its hemisphere — for example, protests in
Venezuela — is a daily offering, and its special programming on media
and a free press is extremely popular.
An indicator of Martí’s effectiveness is the efforts by the Cuban regime
to block its programs. The regime continues to jam Martí radio
broadcasts with some success, especially in Havana. But Martí has
countered by buying time on commercial stations in Miami whose signals
reach the island successfully. The regime also attempts to prevent
access to the Martí Web site, which the Martí leadership circumvents by
providing proxy servers.
No one should assume that Obama’s overture to Raúl Castro will result
soon in a free press, any more than were Mikhail Gorbachev or Wojciech
Jaruzelski ready to relax their control of Soviet and Polish media until
domestic pressure forced them to do so. We should expect the Castro
regime to fight tooth and nail to prevent media freedom, and it is
likely that the regime will intensify measures to derail Radio and TV
Martí as the broadcaster informs Cubans about the deepening crisis of
the current system. Again, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are
precedents. Attacked and vilified by flailing regimes (Jaruzelski
constantly complained to the U.S. Embassy about RFE Polish broadcasts),
the Radio Frees doubled down and fulfilled their historic role.
Post-communist transitions may be protracted and suffer reversals. But
we know from our experience on the front lines of U.S. international
broadcasting that unforeseen events can enhance the role of surrogate
free media and accelerate change. Obama’s decision to reestablish
diplomatic ties with Cuba, regardless of whether it is followed by
liberalization or more repression, is likely to be this kind of
game-changer for Martí. This is the moment for which Radio and TV Martí
were created. The White House and Congress should make available the
resources necessary for Martí to provide Cubans with information that
will help them gain their freedom.
Source: Radio and TV Martí have roles to play as Cuba enters a new era –
The Washington Post –