For more than 25 years, Radio and TV Marti have served as a reminder of America’s failed policy toward Cuba.
The stations were launched in 1985 as a way to crack Fidel Castro’s control over mass media. Since then, they have become little more than a financial black hole. The government has spent nearly $500 million on, among other things, a twin-engine plane, a blimp and a satellite to beam broadcasts into Cuba. The broadcasts, however, are rarely seen or heard. Castro has successfully jammed the stations’ signals, and denounced Washington’s efforts as a violation of international treaty obligations.
So it’s disappointing that the U.S., which in recent years has taken steps to improve relations with Cuba, has opted to sustain and expand these anachronistic broadcasts that serve no purpose other than to placate Cuban exiles in Miami and stoke Castro’s anti-American rants.
Last month, an American company began sending thousands of unsolicited text messages a week to cellphones in Cuba under an $84,000 annual contract with the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which runs the stations. The texts repackage Radio and TV Marti content, such as Major League Baseball scores and invitations to join Internet chats. The strategy is the cyber equivalent of dropping propaganda leaflets on the island. It is ineffective and, according to Cuba, illegal. Moreover, it ignores the fact that less than 10% of Cubans — or roughly 1 million— own cellphones, and that Internet access in Cuba is among the lowest in the world and is strictly regulated by the government.
Surely Washington doesn’t think that spam is going to threaten the Castro brothers’ firm grip on power. And certainly it must know that Cuba isn’t hermetically sealed from the outside world. More than 2 million tourists from Canada, Latin America and Europe pour into Havana each year, and pirate satellite dishes make U.S. television stations, including Univision, accessible to those Cubans with means and courage.
Congress ought to stop pretending that Radio and TV Marti remain relevant. And if President Obama is interested in reaching the Cuban people, he should push Congress to lift the travel ban. Person-to-person contact, not spam, is the way to win the hearts and minds of Cubans.