Radio Martí Turns 30 – But Is Anyone In Cuba Listening?
May 20, 1985: Ronald Reagan was president. Madonna was topping the charts. And Radio Martí went on the air.
The Miami-based, federally-funded station began beaming Spanish-language news and entertainment into communist Cuba 30 years ago today. It was a sort of tropical version of Radio Free Europe – a Cold War effort to transmit information beyond the control of the island's totalitarian Castro regime.
But three decades later – and especially as the U.S. and Cuba now normalize relations – do enough of the 11 million people on that island tune in to Radio Martí and TV Martí to justify their current, combined $27 million budget?
It's a question few people in Washington or Miami were asking when the pro-democracy project was launched.
Most Cuban exiles had long since given up on the prospect of military intervention to rid Cuba of the Castros. Still, they insisted the U.S. government do something. And thanks to their voting clout, the feds responded with a compromise both the Beltway and South Florida could live with, a U.S.-run news operation targeted to Cubans.
“Much of U.S. Cuban policy is not about Cuba, it's about domestic U.S. politics," says John Nichols, an international communications expert at Penn State University. "Radio Martí was a really good compromise between the doves and the hawks."
Nichols, who has followed Radio Martí since its inception, says the hope was that information could be a weapon to destabilize the Castro regime at a relatively low cost.
I seldom listen to Radio Marti. Even when you do, it's difficult because the frequency is often blocked. -Camilo, a Cuban radio listener
But this of course did not go over well with the Cuban government. For one thing, the name: the 19th-century writer and independence leader José Martí was arguably Cuba’s most revered hero.
"Castro became personally involved," Nichols recalls. "I personally talked to him about this. He was very offended by the name 'Martí.' He felt that it was defiling the name of the Cuban national hero."
Cuba, as a result, has tried to block the signal over the years and has made it illegal for anyone to listen to it.
Nevertheless, argues Carlos García-Pérez, director of the U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which runs Radio Martí, "what better gift can you give anyone than to provide you information so that you can make educated decisions about your daily life and your future? That's priceless."
García-Pérez insists Radio Martí is actually more important than ever even as the relationship between the two former Cold War foes thaws. After all, one of President Obama’s priorities under the new engagement policy is to get more information to Cubans.
"If we accomplish our mission," says García-Pérez, "There will be a free press, a commercial operation independent from the government."
Today, Radio Martí still broadcasts 24 hours, seven days a week. Its studios, along with TV Marti’s, are in Doral surrounded by prison-like security that includes barbed wire and a security checkpoint.
Their broadcasts are sent down to a transmitter in the Keys which then beams them across the Florida Straits.
But from there...well, only sketchy data exists on what happens with those broadcasts.
No one has really been able to figure out the size of Radio Martí's actual audience. But one thing seems certain: it's not very big.
Take, for example, Camilo, a man in his 30s who lives in Cuba. (We’re not using his real name to protect his identity.) Camilo answered WLRN’s questions through a family member visiting the island; and he said that while he does listen sometimes to programs on an old Soviet radio he owns, he hardly ever tunes in to foreign radio.
"I very seldom listen to Radio Martí," he said. "And even when you do, it's difficult because the frequency is often blocked."
By most accounts, Camilo’s answer is pretty typical.
A 2009 Government Accountability Office report says the “best available research suggests that Radio and TV Martí’s audience is small,” although a more recent independent survey suggests a fifth of the Cuban population hears it at some point during a typical week.
Over the years there has also been concern about the credibility of Martí's news and op-ed content. But that's something Radio Martís García-Perez insists is not an issue today.
Despite Cuba’s continued demands to take Martí off the air, Roberta Jacobson, the State Department's lead diplomat in Latin America, says that’s not happening.
"The Cuban government has always raised Radio and TV Martí, and they raise them again as part of the list of things that they object to in the normalization talks," Jacobson told Congress recently. "But we have no plans to end those."
But with continued concern over listenership, there are efforts now to defund Marti’s operations.
A U.S. House resolution called the “Stop Wasting Taxpayer Money on Cuba Broadcasting Act” was introduced in January. And President Obama’s proposed budget prioritizes more modern telecommunications to get Cubans more information.
Penn State’s Nichols says that just makes sense.
"For communications to take place, there has to be a sender and receiver," he says. "If only the sender is active, it doesn't make any difference how loud you shout. It just doesn't work that way."
At least it hasn’t for the past 30 years.
You can read more of WLRN's Americas coverage here.