U.S. media campaign has failed to influence Cuba, senators say

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) chairs the Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) chairs the Foreign Relations Committee. (Susan Walsh/associated Press)
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

U.S. government television and radio broadcasts to Cuba have failed to make "any discernible inroads into Cuban society or to influence the Cuban government," the majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said in a report released Monday.

Although such programs may "have noble objectives," Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said, "we need to examine whether we're achieving them."

The report was the latest salvo in a years-long battle between congressional opponents of the broadcasting effort, who say it is a waste of money largely benefiting some members of the Cuban American community in Miami, and proponents, who insist that it is a useful adjunct to U.S. policy that provides unbiased reporting to the island.

In his current budget request, President Obama proposed cutting funds for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) for the second time since taking office, asking for $29.2 million to cover fiscal year 2011. But it has resisted calls, primarily from Democrats, for further cuts.

Radio Martí, named after 19th-century Cuban intellectual and revolutionary hero José Martí, began broadcasts to Cuba in 1985 with a mandate to provide an unbiased news alternative to government-controlled programming; TV Martí began television broadcasts in 1990. Both are jammed by Cuba's communist government, although the extent to which Cubans are able to receive signal is one of many subjects of dispute in the United States.

The principal disagreement is over how many Cubans who can receive the programming choose to do so. A 2007 audit by the inspector general of the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the independent federal agency that runs overseas U.S. government broadcasting, found that "recent audience research indicates that more Cubans are tuning into the broadcasts." But a 2009 report by the General Accountability Office concluded that "the best available research indicates that OCB's audience size is small," and cited surveys indicating that fewer than 2 percent of Cubans tuned in to either station in a given week.

Surveys over the past 25 years have been conducted by phone calls to the island, or through questionnaires given to Cuban immigrants arriving in the United States.

The Senate panel's report echoed previous criticisms that the broadcasts do not meet journalistic standards of the Voice of America, its sister organization under the BBG, and proposed that its headquarters be moved from Miami to join the VOA in Washington. It said the Cuba broadcast effort should "clean up its operation" by attracting talent from outside Miami, and "spend less money on measuring audience size and focus more on quality programming."

About half of the OCB budget is spent on transmission costs, including aircraft that send the TV Martí signal into Cuba from U.S. airspace. Broadcasts are all news, including U.S. presidential speeches and political commentary. In March, Radio and TV Martí provided live coverage, via cellphone, of a demonstration in Havana against the imprisonment of political dissidents.

Cuba's state-owned media offer a steady diet of government news and anti-U.S. diatribes. In recent years, however, they have also provided foreign entertainment programming, including American movies and television shows such as "The Sopranos," "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy." Early this year, Cuban media offered an apparently pirated version of the movie "Avatar" shortly after it opened in U.S. theaters.

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