Radio and Television Marti: Notes from Havana / Iván García

Radio and Television Marti (El Pais)
Radio and Television Marti (El Pais)

Ivan Garcia, 28 May 2016 — Thirty-one years after its founding, the government annoyingly continues to jam broadcasts by Radio Marti and its television signal still cannot be picked up in Cuba.

Its website is censored and this media empire was a point of contention in negotiations with the Havana government to normalize relations with the United States.

As I am a one of its regular contributors, I find it difficult to be both judge and jury. I will try to be objective and focus on two different personal perspectives: first as was young listener and now as a content provider.

One morning in 1985, I remember my mother, who was then an official television journalist, leaning back in her bed and jotting down notes in a notebook while attentively listening to a program on a Soviet-made VEF 206 shortwave radio, which we had at home.

“What are you listening to?” I asked.

“Radio Marti,” she answered in a hushed voice. “My boss told me to listen to its transmissions for a few days and report back on the quality of its programming.”

Out of curiosity, I tuned in to some of its programs. I was twenty and serving in the military. I had read books critical of the regime and communism such as La Gran Estafa (The Hustle) by Eudocio Ravines and Perromundo by Carlos Alberto Montaner. A year later I would read Fidel: A Critical Portrait of American author Tad Szulc.

But it was through radio broadcasts that I found out about violations of human rights in Cuba and the work of democratic activists such as Ricardo Bofill, Roberto Luque Escalona and Elizardo Sanchez.

It was also through Radio Marti that I found out about military deserters such as General Rafael del Pino. And I can still remember the interview Tomas Cardoso conducted with Intelligence Major Florentino Azpillaga.

Assimilating unvarnished information and analysis of events unknown or ignored by many Cubans was a shock for me. Like everyone born after 1959, I received a doctrinaire education and got my news exclusively through official media. Various news reports I heard on Radio Marti led to doubts, questions and disbelief.

Listening to Radio Marti in the winter of 1986 was auditory torture. Powerful jamming by the government made transmissions inaudible. But on certain late nights or in the middle of those irritating and widespread twelve-hour blackouts during the Special Period, the signal came through with no interference.

I do not have statistics to determine the comparative range and impact of Radio Marti in Cuba. My experience is personal. In the autumn of 1995, I began working as an independent journalist for the news agency Cuba Press, headed by the poet Raul Rivero.

The first time I appeared on one of its programs, I felt that strange sensation neophytes often have talking on the radio for the first time. Sweaty hands, muddled thoughts and a shaky voice.

After twenty years of working there at Radio Marti, I have friends like Jose Luis Ramos, Amado Gil, Ofelia Oviedo, Omar Montenegro, Tomas Cardoso, Margarita Rojo, Alvaro Alva and Rolando Cartaya.

There are colleagues and friends of mine in Havana who now also work for the broadcaster. During my two trips to the United States, I met Humberto Castello and Natalia Crujieras, among others.

I have spoken with them about “the Martis,” as the news triumvirate is known, and expressed my opinions honestly. Some I still hold; others have changed.

I continue to believe that Radio Marti can be a platform for dissident voices and the points of view of bloggers and independent journalists.

But times have changed. Though there are limitations due to the shortage and slowness of internet connections, Cuba is not as isolated in terms of access to information as it was three decades ago.

Someone who wants to be informed has other options. For five convertible pesos a month, he can rent a signal from a clandestine satellite antenna. News reports printed by the US embassy in Havana — articles published in CubaNet, Diario de Cuba, Martí News and other alternative media within and outside the island — circulate like samizdat.

I think the Martis should come up with new communication strategies. If the goal of the station is to provide news and information in order to promote an open and pluralistic society, it could now create platforms for other narratives and disseminate the broad spectrum of nuanced opinion in political, social and intellectual spheres generated in Havana and beyond that is not always covered.

Analysts with ties to the Catholic church, opposition figures with differing points of view, moderate critics, those one might call the loyal opposition, and even entrepreneurs should have a voice.

Journalistically, it would be good to republish stories of Periodismo de Barrio (Community Journalism), El Estornudo (The Sneeze), El Toque (The Touch), Havana Times, Cuba Posible or blogs that are not run by dissidents and even those that present themselves as government supporters, but that would show the intense exchange of views currently taking place in Cuba in parallel with the call of the Cuban Communist Party to return to the trenches.

The television side of the operation is important too. Few on the island have ever seen TV Martí programs (although someone can always sneak a peak through Direct TV or America Tevé). The strength of the television network is never discussed.

But how can it evade jamming by the government and reach its target audience? Partnering with commercial broadcasters in Florida is one good option for reaching the segment of the Cuban population that has access to satellite channels.

It would be an excellent idea to incorporate into the TV Marti program schedule something other than the profiles by professional reporters such as Ignacio Gonzalez, who produce video interviews of people on the street on various topics not often covered by government media.

It could hire alternative journalists living outside the capital to write stories, chronicles and analyses from deep inside Cuba for its website.

It would be appropriate to create a blog with differing viewpoints from political activists, economists, sociologists, journalists, writers and other professionals living in the country and abroad regardless of their ideology, something much needed in a nation where tolerance and respect for differences remains an unresolved issue.

The Martis can and should be a platform for the future that Cuba has been developing, despite the inertia of the regime and the frivolous international headlines that appeared after the restoration of diplomatic relations.

They can provide a necessary lesson in democracy and freedom of expression.

From Hispanopost, May 25, 2016