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Should State-Run Media Be Broadcast in the United States? A Debate on Radio and TV Marti Airing in South Florida

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The Bush administration recently reached deals with two South Florida commercial Spanish-language TV and radio stations to broadcast Radio and TV Marti. The Martis are run by the U.S. government and have historically been beamed into Cuba as part of an effort to overthrow the Castro government. The deal comes despite a U.S law prohibiting broadcasting of propaganda inside the country. We host a debate on the issue. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has called for a congressional investigation into whether Radio and TV Marti can be broadcast over the commercial airwaves in southern Florida. The Martis are run by the U.S. government and have historically been beamed into Cuba as part of an effort to overthrow the Castro government.

The Bush administration recently reached deals with two South Florida commercial Spanish-language TV and radio stations to broadcast the Martis. The government is paying the stations almost $200,000 to air a daily hour of Radio Marti programming for six months. This is despite a U.S law prohibiting broadcasting of propaganda inside the United States.

Radio and TV Marti have also come under fire for mismanagement and corruption. In November, a senior TV Marti official was indicted by federal prosecutors in a kickback-for-contracts scheme. The Inspector General’s Office has already launched a review into the operations of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which oversees Radio and TV Marti. And Massachusetts Congressmember William Delahunt, who is slated to head the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee for the House International Relations Committee, has promised to hold hearings on the Martis later this month.

Well, today, we are going to debate the issue. Joe Garcia is with us, director of the Hispanic Strategy Center at the New Democratic Network. He’s also former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, known as CANF. He joins us in Washington, D.C. On the phone with us is Professor John Nichols. He’s a professor of communications at Penn State University, focuses on international communications. He is co-author of the book, Clandestine Radio Broadcasting. Joe O’Connell is the director of public affairs for International Broadcasting Bureau, which is the U.S. government organization that oversees Radio and TV Marti, as well as Voice of America. We welcome you all to Democracy Now!

Let us begin with Joe O’Connell, director of public affairs for International Broadcasting Bureau. Can you tell us what the plan is for Radio and TV Marti in southern Florida?

JOE O’CONNELL: Well, starting last month — I think around December 18th — TV and Radio Marti, as you just said, began broadcasting one hour a day, respectively, on two South Florida stations — WAQI-AM, which is also known as Radio Mambi and which is the only 50,000-watt overnight Spanish-language station in South Florida, and then for TV, WPMF, which is channel 38, TV Azteca station, and which also broadcasts into DirecTV via that same channel. So that gives us one hour, Monday through Friday, on radio and one hour, Monday through Friday, on channel 38 and also simultaneously on DirecTV into Cuba.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of the Smith-Mundt Act, the act that says that U.S. propaganda that is made for overseas audiences, whether it’s Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, or Radio or TV Marti, cannot be broadcast in the United States?

JOE O’CONNELL: Right. Actually, the law, or the clause of the law you’re citing, is from 1948, the so-called Smith-Mundt Act. It doesn’t use the word “propaganda.” It simply says “material.” And the reason why that clause was added back in 1948 was because the representatives of American media of the time, which was mostly newspapers and wire services and radio, came forward and said that they didn’t want to compete with a government news organization, and so that has stayed on the books through all of the technology, which we now know about, most recently, of course, the Internet.

And so, these — VOA itself has long had a website. TV and Radio Marti have websites, notwithstanding the fact that the clause says that you can’t broadcast into the United States. It’s the same — the logic is the same with shortwave, which is what VOA’s original broadcast medium was, that shortwave was available in this country to anybody who had a shortwave radio. Satellite TV is available to anybody who has a satellite dish. And the Internet’s available to anybody that has a computer. But the intended audience for these broadcasts is overseas, in this case Cuba.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, Penn State University professor, your response?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, it’s throwing good money after bad. These stations have been on the air for a very long time, and they’re a colossal waste of the taxpayers’ money. And this new gimmick, like all the previous gimmicks, is not going to change the basic equation that the stations are, for the most part, not heard or seen on the island, are ineffective in achieving U.S. foreign policy goals — indeed, they’re counterproductive — and on top of that, just for the sugarcoating, is they violate our treaty obligations under international law. So, again, good money after bad.

AMY GOODMAN: What are those treaty obligations?


AMY GOODMAN: What are those treaty obligations?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, they’re very complex, and probably don’t want to go into great detail on them, but essentially what they say is that nations have the sovereign right to govern their own domestic broadcasting systems, and in the same way that the United States would be displeased and go to the international bodies if Canada or Mexico presumed to dictate what’s on the air in our own country, Cuba has the same rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Garcia is in the studio in Washington, D.C., with the New Democratic Network, formerly executive director of Cuban American National Foundation. Many people might be surprised to hear that you are opposed to Radio and TV Marti, because CANF is known for its fierce anti-Castro activism.

JOE GARCIA: Well, let’s take a step back. I’m not opposed to Radio and TV Marti. The organization I still sit on the board of, though, was very supportive of the legislation that created both. What I am opposed to is, first of all, Mr. O’Connell’s characterization. These are stations that produce information for Cuba, and yet they are being used to broadcast in South Florida. What Mr. O’Connell doesn’t tell you is that on the same wavelength that Radio Mambi transmits 50,000 watts, Cuba has Radio Rebelde, a 100-watt radio station, which is the most powerful in Latin America. If the antenna of the station that they are transmitting on were located in downtown Havana, you still wouldn’t be able to hear it. So I agree that this is throwing good money at something that is going to have no effect whatsoever, so it’s wasting money.

And where I think Radio and TV Marti have failed is that they have become nothing more than a political patronage setup in South Florida for the Republican Party, as opposed to the very important things that were created by Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, which were an objective information in societies that were closed. And unquestionably, that is not what Radio Marti is achieving today. In fact, it is descending into ridiculous bickering like this, where it is transmitting to local Cuban Americans, as opposed to meeting its missions and its objective, which is to put information inside of Cuba.

And I want to stress two things. The issue about TV Marti transmitting over DirecTV, it could have bought time in a TV station in Utah and done the same thing. They picked South Florida, because they want to transmit also to the Cuban-American community the production and the material that they’re doing, which isn’t the purpose of this, and they are flouting the law. And secondly, the very fact that they could have picked a whole myriad stations that are located in South Florida to transmit directly to Cuba, and they didn’t do that. What they did is they picked one station, which will not get into Cuba and will simply have effect locally, in terms of the Cuban-American population.

JOE O’CONNELL: Well, Joe, you probably also know that there’s nothing new here. Ever since Radio Marti went on the air in 1985, it has broadcast on both shortwave and medium-wave, or AM, the AM transmitter being in Marathon Key.


JOE O’CONNELL: And that’s always been audible in South Florida.

JOE GARCIA: Absolutely, and I’ve listened to it.

JOE O’CONNELL: Just as the TV has been, ever since it went on the air in 1990 to people who have dishes. So there’s nothing really new here. On the angle that this is somehow aimed at Cubans in South Florida, you know, I guess you could make the argument it’s been aimed at them all along, because this is not anything new.

JOE GARCIA: Joe, the difference here is maybe one out of ten Americans have shortwave radio and could find it.

JOE O’CONNELL: But I’m talking about medium — I’m talking about AM out of Marathon Key. I’m not talking about shortwave.

JOE GARCIA: Right. And in Dade County, that AM station is inaudible, as most Cuban stations on the island are very difficult to pick up. I tell you, as someone who lives in South Florida who monitors TV Marti, but you have to use the internet to do it, which is not a particularly easy thing. And secondly, you know, Joe, what’s sad is that the mission of Radio and TV Marti, which I — and I believe you believe, and I disagree with the professor — are important and should be followed. We are engaging in an absurd spectacle of spending $400,000 to spend an hour of programming on both medium, which will have absolutely no effect, and simply puts TV Marti’s administration and purposes into more doubt and creates more argument that will lead to, not more funding, but less funding, not more effectiveness, but less effectiveness, and in the end will have achieved none of the purposes that were there.

Of course, of course that I could have picked up Radio and TV Marti through the Internet or through shortwave radio, but the truth is, most Cubans already have those mediums, and Cuban Americans in Miami would need a special effort to get it. And so, I think that we’ve done nothing but create more controversy in what is already a controversial program, which I believe you and I favor its mission. Unfortunately, by doing this type of activity, all we’ve done is put it in further peril.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Joe Garcia, director of the Hispanic Strategy Center at the New Democratic Network. We’re also talking with Joe O’Connell, director of public affairs at the International Broadcasting Bureau. And we’re joined by John Nichols, professor of communications at Penn State University, who has written about clandestine radio broadcasting. Where does Radio and TV Marti fit into that, John Nichols?

JOHN NICHOLS: What was the question?

AMY GOODMAN: How does Radio and TV Marti fit into clandestine radio broadcasting?

JOHN NICHOLS: It’s not. It’s overt broadcasting. It’s not clandestine. There have been, of course, scores of clandestine stations operated by various exile groups and also by the Central Intelligence Agency that are broadcast into Cuba under the similar purpose of trying to overthrow the Castro government, but none of them are currently on the air. They’ve been off the air for some time.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, can you talk about the history of Radio and TV Marti and Central Intelligence Agency and overall broadcasting in Cuba, the strategy of trying to overthrow Castro through broadcasting here?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, the broadcast wars over the Straits of Florida are probably the most intense of any political broadcasting activity at any time in history, any place in the world. And it’s probably a reflection of the longstanding conflict and hostility between the two countries. And I agree with Mr. Garcia. In the past we’ve disagreed on a variety of different issues, but I agree with most of the substance of what he said. And one of them is that if the purpose of these stations is to resolve problems, to improve the lot for the Cuban people and to resolve the considerable differences between Cuba and the United States, these stations clearly are not doing it. Indeed, there’s strong indication that they’re pushing it in the opposite direction. I also agree with Mr. O’Connell, to some extent, that this new flap is not a substantial change from the past but what it does, it just moves it along the continuum further and makes it more transparent how bankrupt politically these stations are and how much of a waste of the taxpayers’ money that they are.

JOE O’CONNELL: Professor Nichols, if I could just interject.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Joe O’Connell.

JOE O’CONNELL: As you know, the Soviets jammed the Voice of America and the BBC and other Western broadcasters for 50-plus years. You know, I don’t recall anybody suggesting that VOA stop broadcasting or that the BBC stop broadcasting into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union because it was being jammed. I mean, those broadcasts continued, both for reasons of getting through, which they did, and also because of their symbolic value, that people there, as we now know, knew that there was somebody outside who cared and was there. And so, that’s one point.

The other point is, I don’t think we can ignore in this discussion the cost, the serious cost, for the Cuban government of this continuous jamming. I mean, one engineering estimate I’ve seen is that it costs the government — and that’s from an energy-starved island, as we all know — it costs, they use something like 8.5 million watts an hour to jam both radio and TV. I mean, I’m told that’s enough to power a small industrialized city. If these broadcasts are useless and no good and irrelevant, then why would they do that? I mean, I think that’s a question. That’s not the only answer, but that’s a question.

JOE GARCIA: Let me break in, though, to what Joe is saying here, because I think it’s tremendously important.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Garcia.

JOE GARCIA: Yeah. First off, let’s go back to the transmissions of Radio and TV Marti are tremendously important, and I believe they should continue. I believe the programming should get better. And I also want to agree with something that Joe said, one of the hallmarks of Radio Free Europe transmission was when the Iron Curtain came down, they asked Vaclav Havel how important the transmissions of Radio Free Europe was, and he said, “You might as well ask me how important air and water is to sustain human life.” They were essential. They were a signal of freedom. I’m not against the transmissions of Radio and TV Marti.

What I am against is these illegal payoffs to local providers of content in South Florida, which are not going to reach Cuba, but are only reaching the Cuban-American community. The station they have opted to pay $200,000 to cannot be heard in Cuba, and it is the most rightwing Republican station on the dial. These guys do nothing more than parrot the position of the administration. And that’s why I think the choice Mr. O’Connell made is pathetic and absurd. And I’m not accusing him of doing it, but the administration of Radio and TV Marti, because in the end, what it is is a political payoff, and what it is is putting out Radio and TV Marti propaganda in the community to engage in a political debate that is not the purpose of Radio and TV Marti. There are an infinite number of Cuban-American radio stations and Cuban radio station on the dial in South Florida, from the left to the right, who engage in this debate all the time.

What Radio and TV Marti’s purpose is is not to engage in the debate, but to provide a window of freedom and opportunity to the people of Cuba, not to South Florida exiles. And that is where I think Mr. O’Connell has gone wrong. That is where the CREW motion, Citizens for [Responsibility and Ethics] in Washington, and Melanie Sloan are absolutely correct. What we’ve done is stepped into a violation of the law, which I think will have no benefit to Radio and TV Marti, will bring, again, more questions about what it does and how it operates, and, in the end, I think, will hurt both stations

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, your response.

JOHN NICHOLS: Mr. O’Connell raised three points. I’d like to quickly go through them.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Joe Garcia.

JOHN NICHOLS: John Nichols, yes. This is the issue of the cost of jamming on the part of the Cuban government. I am highly skeptical of those figures. Indeed, if it were true, the U.S. government has figured out a way, not only to violate international law, but also to violate the laws of physics. And the cost to jam a station, particularly a TV station, is only an infinitesimal fraction of what it costs to broadcast. But we’ve been trying very hard to get those very engineering studies and have them publicly disclosed, so we could see. So I challenge Mr. O’Connell to release that engineering data, and so there can be a meaningful discussion about it.

The second point he raised about the symbolism, even if the stations are not heard in Cuba, the symbolism of broadcasting to Cuba and comparing it to Voice of America during the Cold War. I mean, how about the symbolism of the United States being in knowing and willful violation of our international treaty obligations? The largest, most powerful country in the world, broadcasting to a small country in violation of international law, that is not good symbolism for our international reputation in difficult times.

JOE O’CONNELL: But interestingly enough, that’s the same kind of thing that, you know, we used to hear from the Soviets, and even today from China, about interference in their internal affairs by broadcasting into those countries. I mean, we look at the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which says that everybody has the right to receive and impart information across or regardless of frontiers. So, if you’re suggesting that somehow international broadcasting across borders is illegal, then I think that flies in the face of the history of international broadcasting throughout the Cold War and the recognition that it’s been given that it was helpful.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Joe O’Connell, who oversees Radio and TV Marti. Professor Nichols, your response?

JOHN NICHOLS: It’s an interesting legal discussion that we debate over and over again, but no matter. The relevant international body, the International Telecommunications Union, has repeatedly — this is the international judicial body that governs international broadcasting and makes the decisions in these kinds of disputes, and it has ruled repeatedly that the United States is out of compliance with its treaty obligations by broadcasting TV Marti and repeatedly tells the United States to cease and desist. And the United States repeatedly says, “Buzz off.” So, it’s not — the judge and jury have decided. We could debate about whether the judge and jury are right, but the decision has already been made.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask a quick question of Professor Nichols. Joe O’Connell talked about the Smith-Mundt Act as being put in place just so that commercial broadcasters wouldn’t have to compete with government broadcasting. But wasn’t Smith-Mundt actually put in place, because the U.S. saw the power of state propaganda, because of the Nazis, and to guard against that kind of propagandizing of a home population?

JOHN NICHOLS: Yes, I believe that’s true. I mean, Mr. O’Connell is partially right in saying that domestic media did not want to have competition, but you’re correct, as well. There was a considerable part of the debate said that the United States, the Congress, did not want a taxpayer-funded propaganda arsenal turned against our own people, inherently undemocratic.

JOE O’CONNELL: If you look at the legislative history —

JOHN NICHOLS: In the 1940s, certainly they’ve been overtaken by the technology that Mr. O’Connell went through. And so, I’m not too sure those laws, although they’re still on the books, are the major issue here.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe O’Connell, what does it mean for you that Congressmember Delahunt says he’s going to conduct hearings into Radio and TV Marti? How are you preparing for this?

JOE O’CONNELL: Well, we’ve already said that we welcome the congressman’s announcement about conducting hearings, anyway, if not an investigation. I mean, we’re happy and prepared to work with him and his staff. Speaking of laws, I wanted to get in that both of the pieces of legislation, the Radio Marti, the Broadcasting to Cuba Act, which is the original enabling legislation back in the ’80s, which created Radio Marti, and then more recently the TV Marti Act, which created it in 1990, both contained language, one more clear than the other, but nonetheless language, which say that — or which authorize the U.S. government to lease time on, quote, “other commercial or noncommercial education AM band radio broadcasting stations if broadcast to Cuba on 1180 AM are subject to jamming or interference.” The jamming, of course, is well established. Similarly, TV Marti — and this is referring to the section of the Smith-Mundt Act that we were just talking about, the so-called prohibition on domestic dissemination — it says that the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is the parent agency of all U.S. government-supported overseas broadcasters, shall, notwithstanding the section of the Smith-Mundt Act, shall provide for open communication of information and ideas through the use of television broadcast into Cuba. So we believe that we have the authority under these pieces of legislation to do this.

And the other thing I wanted to add is that the steps that were taken a month ago, or several weeks ago in mid-December, on — by way of putting the TV and Radio Marti on the local stations in or via the local stations in South Florida, these are just additional steps, as both Joe and Professor Nichols know. You know, the airborne TV Marti broadcast started back in August. The use of satellite has been in place for some time. I mean, these are various ways in which they’re trying to get these broadcasts into Cuba, as has been recommended twice by the committee, the committee which — the name of — the Committee [Commission] for Assistance to a Free Cuba noted in both its 2004 and its 2006 reports.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Nichols, your response? And we’re going to have to wrap it here.

JOHN NICHOLS: I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear the question.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to what Mr. O’Connell is saying? And we’re going to have to wrap up here.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think he’s correct that the language that might permit this kind of domestic blowback is there, certainly in the case of Radio Marti. But it’s highly questionable in the case of TV Marti. But again, it skirts the issue of, even if they get the signal into Cuba, even if Cuba chooses not to jam, will the Cuban people embrace the voice of what Mr. Garcia appropriately describes is a station loaded with rightwing silliness? And I think it’s highly doubtful. The Cuban people are not idiots. They know the difference between good solid, objective information that they used to get over Voice of America and the shrill political stuff that they get in Radio and TV Marti.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. John Nichols, professor of communications at Penn State University, thank you for being with us. Joe O’Connell, director of public affairs for the International Broadcasting Bureau, which oversees Radio and TV Marti; and finally, Joe Garcia of the New Democratic Network, former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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