Despite expenditures, TV Marti still tough to see in Cuba
By LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ
AP Hispanic Affairs Writer
Ten months ago, the U.S. government launched a new effort to beam TV
broadcasts into Cuba via a Gulf Stream jet, an end-run around the
communist government's close grip on the island's media.
A U.S. State Department draft report circulated last month called the
jet "a best practice" to beat the Cubans' jamming efforts and said the
$10 million startup cost was "a big investment but appears to be paying
off," with viewership on the rise.
But more than two dozen Cubans immigrants who recently arrived in
Florida paint a very different picture. In interviews with The
Associated Press, they said while the U.S. government's Radio Marti is
heard throughout the island, TV Marti can rarely be seen. The TV
operation costs U.S. taxpayers more than $20 million a year.
"I saw it during a day with very good climatological conditions, but it
still barely came through," said Efrain Ramos, 56, who arrived in
Florida June 29 from Havana. Those outside of Havana couldn't see it at all.
This is just the latest criticism of TV Marti, which has been accused of
being biased, sometimes mismanaged and often boring. The station remains
in sync with the views of Miami's most hardline, Cuban-American
political leadership, and efforts by some members of Congress to put the
17-year-old station out of business have never gotten very far. But U.S.
Reps. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., and Jeff Flake,
R-Ariz., are pushing for hearings on the Marti stations for the fall,
and congressional investigators began reviewing management of the Martis
Still, the station is one of the Miami Cuban exile community's few
tangible victories during its 48-year struggle to overthrow Fidel
Castro's government, and many Cuban-Americans are loathe to criticize it
Half a dozen current and former Marti journalists, as well as several
experts who support the Marti mission, expressed concern to the AP about
the quality of the current programming and a topdown management style
that swiftly punishes dissenters. All refused to speak on the record
because they said the feared losing their jobs or other retribution.
Since 2005, several employees have sent repeated unsigned letters to
Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice criticizing the management. Among
their concerns is the State Department report's reliance on a January
poll showing the number of Cubans viewing Marti on the island increased
with the plane's launch. The man whose company commissioned the poll,
veteran Spanish-language media consultant Herb Levin, helped found Radio
Marti and has had several other contracts to improve Marti programming.
"I don't care about the perceptions. I know the quality of work we do,
and the standards we apply to the work we perform," Levin said. "I'm
open for any kind of examination of our work product."
The recent State Department report found the station suffered from a
lack of communication between management and employees and that ethical
standards needed to be reviewed, but it said overall morale had improved
in recent years under current Director Pedro Roig.
Alberto Mascaro, chief of staff for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting,
which oversees TV and Radio Marti, hopes the State Department's
conclusions will eventually translate into more confidence in the
"It's not me trying to sell it to the public," he said. "It is an
independent agency that does this every single day."
The station has made strides. It added a weekly program called "Voces,"
which focuses on the black civil rights struggle in the U.S. and human
rights struggles worldwide, as well as a satire about a Cuban
immigrant's culture shock. More shows are targeting women.
But the few recent arrivals who had seen the TV broadcasts said the
mostly news and commentary formats still mirror what the Cuban
government stations offer.
"It's the same," said Lazaro Yuced, 22, who arrived four months ago from
Watching American TV broadcasts is illegal in Cuba. Those interviewed
said that if they did watch banned programs, they preferred the
commercial channels from Miami via contraband satellite dishes. Some of
those stations even use personalities who once performed on the Cuban
government's four TV channels.
John Nichols, a Pennsylvania State University professor of
communications and a critic of the Martis, compared TV Marti's use to
that of Radio Free Europe.
"In Eastern Europe during the Cold War, there were not many choices for
the audiences in Eastern Europe, making Radio Free Europe important,"
said Nichols, a longtime critic of the Martis. "But the technology has
radically changed, and the geographic position of Cuba gives it a wealth
of other options."
Nichols, who recently returned from Cuba, said neither he nor anyone he
spoke to had seen any change with the new jet.
"It may reach some rural areas between populations," he said, "but why
would the Cuban government care if a dozen cows in the middle of nowhere
can see the station?"
But U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, says the broadcasts fill a niche
commercial media can't fill because they focuses on Cuba-related issues
and, with an ailing Castro, it will be key in promoting a more open
society should there be a change Cuba's government. Diaz-Balart,
R-Miami, a Cuban-American who has championed the Martis, rejected
concerns about its reach and calls for review.
"It's a yearly occurrence," he said. "I've never seen a program more
reviewed than the Martis."
A call to the Castro government's representative in Washington, D.C.,
was not answered Friday.
Ironically, because Cuba is still so successful at jamming TV Marti, the
Cuba broadcasting office received permission in December to beam
newscasts into the country via a Miami Spanish-language TV network
affiliate at nearly $400,000 a year. The U.S. government is prohibited
from broadcasting government-owned media within the U.S to avoid the
appearance of propaganda, but because Cubans can pick up TV Azteca via
satellite, an exception was made.
But the recent Cuban arrivals told the AP that the Mexican-owned TV
Azteca is unpopular. They prefer stations more culturally attuned to
Cuba and the Caribbean.
Mascaro defended the decision to use Azteca.
"I don't know how much they stay and watch other programs, but they're
finding us," he said of TV Marti's success on Azteca.
Eventually, free elections and a free press will be allowed on the
island, and the Cuba broadcasts won't be needed, Mascaro said. But that
won't necessarily spell the end of TV Marti.
The recent State Department report urged the broadcast office to review
how it could expand to other parts of Latin America to counter media
controlled by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.