Iván García, 24 February 2015 — One summer during a stay in Camaguey — a province 340 miles east of Havana — the owner of a house where I was staying listened from early morning to Radio Marti, a network created in 1985 under the administration of Ronald Reagan with the goal of providing Cubans with information uncensored or manipulated by the Castro government.
The woman told me that since 1985 she has been listening to radio soap operas, news and a morning program geared to a rural audience. When I travelled to other provinces, nearly all the people with whom I spoke said they got their information from or followed big league baseball on Radio Marti, which is probably heard more in the countryside than in the capital.
There is a logical explanation: the regime jams the station’s broadcasts less here. In Varadero, located on the Hicacos Peninsula and along the northern coast of Cuba, Radio Marti’s programming can be clearly heard.
Given the new geo-political dynamic between Cuba and the United States — two Cold War adversaries — various voices within the U.S. Congress are questioning the effectiveness and impact of the “Martis,” as they refer to an entity that includes a radio station, a television channel and a website.
Among the conditions for normalizing relations with the United States, Raul Castro asked that the media conglomerate be dismantled. Since the first broadcast in 1985 the government in Havana has used electronic jamming to block its radio and television signals. And readers cannot access the Marti Noticias website from Cuba.
Using the radio as a vehicle for informing citizens in totalitarian countries, where news, films and books are controlled by a dictatorship, is nothing new. During the Soviet era, the United States created Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, broadcasters which disseminated information the Kremlin was trying to suppress.
The so-called “asymmetrical war,” which according to the regime is an attempt by the United States to destabilize Cuba, is something of an exaggeration.
With Fidel Castro’s arrival in power in January 1959, revolutionary propaganda became a powerful instrument of social control. One year earlier, in February 1958, Radio Rebelde (Rebel Radio) had already begun broadcasting from the Sierra Maestre, which contributed to the dissemination of the insurgents’ message.
A few months after becoming president, Fidel Castro completely did away with a free press, nationalizing newspapers and magazines, and establishing Prensa Latina and Radio Havana Cuba — media outlets that would later have the task of selling the world on the alleged benefits of the Cuban system, alternating between true and false propaganda.
Official radio networks in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Spain often make use of these tools to their advantage too, but the storyline is different. In spite of being government entities, Voice of America, BBC, Radio France International and Radio Exterior de España air dissenting opinions.
I speak from personal experience. I have been a regular contributor to Radio Marti since 1996. I have been a guest on its radio shows and have had articles published in which I criticized both Cuban dissidents and the government of the United States without any form of censorship.
If Radio Marti were shut down, dissidents and independent journalists would not have a feedback channel to reach those living in Cuba. If the government allowed dissident voices to be heard in the media, the station nestled in Florida would lose its reason for being.
Before returning home after attending a workshop on investigative journalism in San Diego in November 2014, I spent a few days in Miami. There I met producers, directors and journalists who work for the Martis.
I have had frank conversations with Karen Caballero, a presenter on TV Marti. I have debated with Alvaro Alba, Ofelia Oviedo, Hector Carrillo, Amado Gil, Jose Luis Ramos, Rolando Cartaya, Margarita Rojo, Omar Montenegro, Luis Felipe Rojas and Juan Juan Almeida about the future of network.
I had a very productive meeting with Carlos Garcia Perez, director of both Radio Marti and Television Marti, and with officials Humberto Castello and Natalia Crujeiras. I argued that this broadcaster’s radio programs are crucial in providing a platform for the opposition and an outlet for articles by Cuba’s independent journalists.
It is a shame that jamming by the regime prevents TV Marti from being seen on the island. Ideally, it should have a wider audience. We all know the power of images.
In my opinion any reorganization that the Martis might go through should be for the better. Giving a broader platform to independent journalists and alternative bloggers is something that should be considered.
Programs on leisure and recreation could be improved. International news programs could be made more attractive, especially in regards to Venezuela, a country of great interest to some sectors within Cuba.
Thousands of housewives are regular listeners of soap operas. The variety of programming could be increased to offer more shows for women. Sports shows always gets high ratings so it should be given more air time.
Independent journalists in Cuba surely have entertaining stories. This is the 21st century. Never before have humans had access to so many sources of information as today. To reach them means having to be innovative.
The government of Raul Castro prohibits the free flow of news and information. It fears Radio Marti. That’s why it is censored.
Travel Notebook VIII
Photo: Cuba Day, a Radio Marti news show that airs Monday through Friday from 3 to 4 PM. Produced by Ofelia Oviedo, it is directed by Tomás Cardoso, Omar Lopez Montenegro and journalist Cary Roque. Freelance journalist Iván García is often invited to report from Havana. In his last appearance on Friday, February 6, he talked about what Cubans can expect from talks between Cuba and the United States (TQ).