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Radio Martí: Long Overdue for a Tune-Up Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC via Difference Engine

Radio Martí: Long Overdue for a Tune-Up

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Recent controversies under the Trump administration have cast doubt over the credibility of the United States’ international broadcasting programs under the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). As the Biden administration looks to restore America’s reputation abroad, protecting the editorial independence and non-partisanship of international broadcasting–one of the largest segments of U.S. public diplomacy programming–is key.  

A significant challenge to the integrity of U.S. international broadcasting is Radio and TV Martí, which broadcast to Cuba. Far from exemplary tools of American diplomacy and soft power, Radio and TV Martí (here afterward “Radio Martí”) have upheld poor journalistic standards, struggled to reach Cuban audiences, and proved a tension point in U.S.-Cuba relations. 

Despite calls to dismantle the organization, Radio Martí is not beyond saving. By overhauling the OCB with the right reforms and modernizations, Radio Martí could live up to its potential as a beacon of American values and demonstrate press freedom to those living in a closed media environment. 

Radio Martí’s History of Shortcomings

Radio Martí began broadcasting to Cuba in 1985 under the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) with the goal of “breaking the information blockade” between Washington and Havana. Yet more than 30 years later, Cuba is still home to one of the most censored media environments in the Western Hemisphere, practiced through government restrictions to internet access, censorship, and crackdowns on independent journalists

Almost since its inception, the OCB’s poor performance has hindered its potential. Reports from the Government Accountability Office (published in 1992, 1994, 2009) and Office of the Inspector General (2007 and 2014) have raised concerns over the OCB’s journalistic standards and outreach strategy. Most recently, instances of anti-Semitic reporting in 2018 triggered USAGM to request an independent review of Radio Martí’s content. This panel unanimously found that “Martí openly engages in both propaganda and the promotion of a current administration’s foreign policy.”

Furthermore, signal jamming and censorship prevent Cubans from listening to Radio Martí and complicate efforts to measure the program’s audience. A 2019 USAGM-commissioned report found that Radio Martí’s content targeted older Cubans and lacked the operating structure and professional experience to engage emerging youth with ever-expanding means to access news.

These shortcomings have prompted calls to shut down Radio Martí or integrate it with VOA Latin America. However, the challenges Radio Martí faces are not insurmountable. With the necessary reforms, Radio Martí may enhance its potential to engage Cuban audiences and fulfill its mission to broadcast free and credible news. 

Necessary Reforms and Challenges Ahead 

The most recent recommendation from the 2020 Comprehensive Annual Report on Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting calls for the OCB’s wholesale modernization. Such an overhaul would enforce journalistic standards, prioritize digitalization, and increase audience reach by updating the OCB’s operating structure and professional expertise. Important considerations to carry out these modernizations include: 

Overcoming Cuba’s Repressive and Restrictive Media Environment: 

Government signal jamming and censorship prevent Radio Martí from reaching Cubans, yet these challenges are not new for U.S. international broadcasters. During the Cold War, Radio Liberty and Voice of America struggled to reach Soviet audiences, with an estimated reach of 23% and 11% of Soviet adults per week in the early 1970s. In 2019, Radio Martí’s experience is not wholly different. Indeed, the restricted media environments in which American overseas broadcasters operate are a testament to why these programs are necessary, not an argument for their dismantling.

Since Cubans cannot legally access Radio Martí, the program has developed creative methods to  reach its reported audience of 1 million Cubans per week or 11.1% of Cubans. While some strategies, such as AeroMartí, have been costly failures, others have shown promise. For example, Radio Martí has bypassed censorship by delivering news offline through flash drives and DVDs, establishing the Piramideo SMS-based social network, and distributing the El Pitirre weekly newsletter. The OCB has also utilized psiphon nodes and VPNs to help Cubans access censored information. Instituting appropriate oversight to allow cost-effective pilot programs to continue to develop creative and functional news-delivery strategies will be integral to the OCB’s ability to penetrate Cuba’s information blockade. In addition, modernization will also help the OCB create professionally informed engagement and outreach strategies.

Meeting Cuban Audiences Where They Are: Online and Mobile

Radio Martí must also expand its audience and meet listeners where they already consume news. Despite restrictions, Cubans have found ways to connect and share information online. For example, Street Network (SNet) is a grassroots system of user-owned and operated wireless networks that evade state control. A growing number of Cubans use social networks, encryption software, and even maintain their own news sites and blogs with help of people living outside the country. Current estimates suggest that around 5.3 million Cubans have access to a mobile phone, of which 4.4 million have mobile internet access. Though only 189,000 have home internet access, a majority have access to social media and email. While the cost of accessing the internet remains expensive, it is becoming more accessible and faster. In this evolving media environment, creating content for digital distribution that is mindful of limited but increasing data access is necessary to expand Radio Martí’s ability to reach more Cubans. 

Conclusion

Overhauling Radio Martí will not be an easy task. The broadcasting program has become entangled in the politics of Cuba engagement, an issue that has traditionally enjoyed little bipartisan consensus. However, the Obama-era detente brought with it new possibilities for engagement with Cuba. Polls have indicated that most Americans support lifting the embargo and the Cuban American National Foundation, a traditional advocate of a hardline stance against Cuba, has recently expressed support for limited engagement with Havana.   

While U.S.-Cuba diplomacy is still far from normalization, reforming Radio Martí could help further U.S. policy goals in Cuba and remove a stain on US broadcasting credibility. USAGM’s programming has long been a valuable tool in America’s soft power arsenal, and it is well past time for Radio Martí to rejoin the ranks of credible, free, and independent U.S. international broadcasters.

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