President Donald Trump’s recently released budget would drastically cut funds and staffing at the Miami-based Radio and TV Martí, while restoring funds to support other democracy projects in Cuba and new ones in Venezuela.
The restoration of funds comes amid large cuts to the Department of State and the United States Agency for Development (USAID). The proposal would allocate $10 million for programs related to Cuba and another $9 million for similar initiatives in Venezuela.
“Assistance will support efforts in both Cuba and Venezuela to promote democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms,” says the budget justification sent to Congress on Monday by the State Department.
In 2017, the State Department presented to Congress a budget with zero financing for programs related to Cuba under its economic support and development fund. Aid to Venezuela was also slashed. The funds for Cuba democracy programs for fiscal year 2019 — which begins in October 2018 and ends in September 2019 — is half of what President Barack Obama’s administration approved in 2016.
The presidential budgets indicate what the executive's priorities are, but Congress can make changes or approve a completely different version.
Under the current proposal, Radio and TV Martí could also suffer the biggest cuts in recent years.
The budget justification presented by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) includes a $10 million cut to the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which manages Radio and TV Martí, as well as the Martínoticias website. It also proposes a reduction of full-time personnel from 113 to 51.
The cuts are distributed among different divisions of the OCB. Radio and TV Martí will each receive approximately $2.2 million less. In total, the budget of the OCB would be reduced to $13.6 million, less than half of what it received in fiscal year 2017 when it was funded with $28.9 million. The budget for fiscal year 2018 is $23 million.
The BBG, however, requested an additional $1.2 million to expand Voice of America’s coverage of Venezuela.
“We are still in the planning stages of how we would implement a cut of this magnitude should the final budget reflect these proposed levels,” Nasserie Carew, BBG’s communications director, told el Nuevo Herald. “Our objective is always to preserve impact.”
Nobody thought that Donald Trump would be the one to bury Radio and TV Martí.
A Martí employee
Workers from the Martí stations who asked not to be named said they were surprised by the news, especially since Trump has hardened U.S. policy toward Cuba.
“Nobody thought that Donald Trump would be the one to bury Radio and TV Martí,” said one employee. Several others said the proposed cuts came from a board of directors appointed by the previous administration.
The Obama administration weighed several alternatives to restructure or privatize the stations, including its merger with the Voice of America and a plan to turn its employees into contractors. “There have been many attempts by the same board of directors that Obama appointed,” said one employee.
André Mendes, OCB’s interim director after the resignation of Malule González in June, was to convene a meeting to discuss the budget, the employee added.
“Much of our operating cost is in personnel. Following the president's budget rollout, each of our entity leaders have had or will have conversations with relevant staff,” Carew said. “We will keep all staff updated as the budget process unfolds.”
In Miami, some Cuban exiles immediately criticized the proposal but blamed the previous administration.
“These Obama appointees, fearing that Radio and TV Martí will fall into the hands of a new director who is not afraid of offending Castro … have proposed taking $10 million [out of the stations’ budget],” said Marcell Felipe, a lawyer and activist who chairs the Miami-based Inspire America foundation. “This shows how important it is for the president to get rid of Obama holdovers who do not support his policy,” he added.
But not everyone opposes the cuts.
Over the years, the Martí stations have sparked criticism because of their cost and effectiveness. The stations’ mission is “to promote freedom and democracy by providing the people of Cuba with objective news and information programming,” according to the OCB’s website. But the television and radio signals have been jammed by the Cuban government. More recently, the OCB has focused on its digital strategy and getting their content to the island on DVDs and USB flash drives.
“TV Martí is a waste of taxpayer dollars,” said Geoff Thale, vice president of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “It reaches few people in Cuba, and has been plagued with internal battles. Radio Martí’s reporting often falls short of journalistic standards, and it’s hard to imagine the justification for spending taxpayer dollars on a station directed specifically at Cuba when we already have a Spanish-language service of the Voice of America that reaches the hemisphere,” he added.
Radio and TV Martí broadcasts, as well as USAID programs, have also fueled conflict between the U.S. and Cuba. The Cuban government considers both “subversive” initiatives. USAID has also been under scrutiny for its handling of information about programs related to Cuba and its use of the funds.
The most serious case involving the agency was the arrest of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who was imprisoned in Cuba for five years for smuggling technology forbidden on the island to connect to the internet.
Since its publication on Monday, Trump's budget has been harshly criticized for raising the fiscal deficit and including large cuts to programs such as Medicaid and Medicare, making it unlikely that Congress will approve it as is.
The proposal requests a total of $39.3 billion for the State Department and USAID, which is estimated to be a 27 percent cut compared to fiscal year 2017, when that figure reached $55.6 billion.
In general, democracy promotion programs suffered large cuts under Trump’s proposal. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) would receive only $67 million, compared to the estimated $169 million it has for the current fiscal year. USAID’s Transition initiative, with a current budget of $125 million, would get only $33 million in fiscal year 2019.
The Office of Management and Budget published a report on Monday highlighting the savings by eliminating the State Department’s accounts for development assistance and food aid; significantly cutting funding for educational and cultural exchange programs; and slashing nearly $700 million in contributions to international organizations such as the United Nations.
The budget request “modernizes State Department and USAID diplomacy” and helps “to support more stable and resilient societies that will lead their own development and, ultimately, no longer need foreign aid,” the agency said in a statement.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres