Both sides of the Cuba debate made news in Washington on April 27, but only one side was covered in detail by the U.S. government’s broadcasts to Cuba.
More than 600 activists came to Washington for “Cuba Action Day” to attend a forum and lobby Congressional representatives to end the Cuba travel ban. On the same day, pro-embargo legislators announced formation of a Cuba Democracy Caucus to support the Administration’s policies.
Professional journalists writing for south Florida newspapers gave the events roughly equal weight in their coverage.
But Radio Marti, the U.S. government operation “transmitting from Miami,” as the announcer says each hour, acted differently.
In one long story that ran at 8:00 a.m. on April 28, Radio Marti’s Washington correspondent told of the formation of the Cuba Democracy Caucus, described as a new Congressional “committee” to promote a transition in Cuba. He quoted Senator Mel Martinez and Representative Mario Diaz Balart, both of Florida, and cited the goals of the new caucus. Midway through his report, the correspondent noted in one sentence that another group, “mostly Democrats,” had called for an easing of travel restrictions. He then followed with an ample quote from Senator Martinez explaining his opposition to any easing of travel restrictions. The report concluded with additional quotes from pro-embargo legislators and further discussion of their agenda. It contained no other discussion of the Cuba Action Day event, no quotes from the legislators (two Republicans, one Democrat) who addressed the forum or from the Cuban Americans who attended, and no mention of the just-introduced House and Senate bills to lift the travel ban — bills that have more sponsors than the Cuba Democracy Caucus has members.
In contrast, the stories in south Florida newspapers included quotes from one attendee, Sgt. Carlos Lazo, a Cuban American Army medic recently returned from Iraq. A veteran of the battle of Fallujah, Lazo completed his tour of duty and is now barred until April 2006, due to Bush Administration policies, from traveling to Cuba to visit two sons who still live there.
Later that morning a second Radio Marti story, one minute in length, gave similar coverage to Senator Martinez and concluded with one sentence on other legislators’ efforts to end the travel ban. A third story, three minutes in length, ran at 10:00 p.m. It covered only Senator Martinez’ group, quoting him and three allied Senators.
The Radio Marti website (martinoticias.com) contains two short, redundant stories on the formation of the Cuba Democracy Caucus; one features a photo of Senator Martinez, the other a photo of Reps. Lincoln Diaz Balart and Ileana Ros Lehtinen.
On the same day, Radio Marti carried informative and objective stories about other world news, including the Secretary of State’s travels and Middle East events. It carried Mexican reaction to the harsh criticism leveled at President Fox by President Castro — something Cuban media were unlikely to cover. It carried an interview with a dissident, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who embraced a declaration from a coalition of Miami groups that diverges from the Administration’s vision of “transition” in Cuba.
But the station’s news judgment was skewed when it came to the April 27 events in Washington, recalling past patterns of uneven coverage of issues of intense concern to the hard-line segment of the Cuban American community. For example, Radio Marti delayed coverage of the seizure of Elian Gonzalez by federal agents for several hours, and it did not carry a live broadcast of the speech former President Carter made in Cuba, even though that speech criticized Cuba’s human rights record and was carried live on Cuban state media.
Current Washington discussion of Radio and TV Marti focuses on signal strength and the efforts of U.S. government engineers to overcome Cuban jamming. The Bush Administration is now using a military C-130 full of transmitters to make weekly broadcasts to Cuba as it flies in U.S. airspace south of the Florida Keys, and it plans to buy a new aircraft outfitted with transmitters to carry out that task exclusively for Radio and TV Marti.
But given the content of Radio Marti’s broadcasts, one wonders how big its audience would be if there were no jamming at all. Cubans who have shortwave radios can tune in to the BBC, the Voice of America, Radio Espana Internacional, Radio Netherlands, and other international broadcasts, not to mention movies, baseball, music, and other entertainment on Cuban state media. Some say they choose not to listen to Radio Marti because of the quality of its programming and a political bias that they perceive.
Last year, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega talked of the task of “building a program that is worthy to bear the name of Jose Marti.” Judging from one day’s news coverage, progress toward achieving that task seems mixed.
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