With the Cuban government’s persistent jamming of their broadcasts, Radio and TV Martí have used alternative means to deliver content to the island —– including sneaking in the same technology that put Alan Gross in prison.
Gross, a subcontractor with the U.S. Agency for International Development, spent five years jailed in Havana for giving Cubans forbidden technology for accessing the internet. It's now clear that the U.S. government's Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which runs the Martí operations, did the same for years.
The OCB slipped into the island small satellite sets known as BGAN — Broadband Global Area Network — as part of its effort to provide Cubans with access to the internet that was not monitored by the Cuban government, and to deliver Martí programs to the island.
The BGAN program began during Fiscal Year 2013, which started Oct. 1, 2012, and ended in FY2015, according to Nasserie Carew, a spokesman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency that runs OCB.
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Gross was arrested in Havana in 2009 after delivering BGAN transmitters to the island's Jewish community. He was convicted of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity” of Cuba and was freed in December 2014 as part of a prisoner exchange with the Obama administration.
The BGAN program “consisted of small two-way satellite devices that were distributed within Cuba by OCB,” Carew wrote in an email to el Nuevo Herald.
“Users of these devices could access the Internet via commercial satellites, which allowed circumvention of censorship of the internet by the Cuban government. Users could also share this access with other nearby people over WiFi,” he added.
“Access speeds were faster than dial-up speeds commonly available in Cuba, but at approximately 400 kilobits/second, significantly slower than modern broadband access available in most of the rest of the world,” he said.
“The program was discontinued due to the high costs of the program,” he wrote. “The cost per user was high due to both the BGAN hardware costs and the bandwidth costs of the satellite Internet access,” the spokesman wrote.
“We used to do it. We no longer do it because it was not cost effective,” said André Mendes, who was interim OCB director until his resignation Wednesday. He said that the BGANs had been used by some to access pornography, which is illegal in Cuba. “We are not in the business to give access to porn.”
Mendes, who also served as the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ chief technology and information officer until Friday, joined then-OCB director Carlos García on a trip to the U.S navy base in Guantánamo in 2012 to test the BGAN equipment.
But two sources with knowledge of the BGAN program said the basic reason for suspending it was political.
Delivery of the BGAN equipment to the island was suspended in 2015 as the Obama administration publicly negotiated establishing full diplomatic relations with Cuba. Havana demanded an end to Radio and TV Martí as one of its conditions for normalization, according to the sources, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the topic.
One of the sources said the State Department, which supervises the BBG, expressed “discomfort” with the program and the possibility that the Cuban government would use the “satellite boxes” as an excuse to paralyze the negotiations.
“Nothing surprises me about U.S.-Cuba policy. I have only disappointment,” Gross wrote to el Nuevo Herald. He added that he did not know the U.S. government had continued to slip BGANs into Cuba after his arrest.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Cuba has one of the lowest internet connection rates in Latin America, even though it's connected to the world by an undersea cable. The government controls access to the internet through the Ministry of Informatics and Communications, and the ruling Communist Party supervises and censors the domestic mass media. Cubans, for example, cannot watch foreign TV channels except those from allies like Venezuela, Russia and Iran.
Official figures show that as of March, the country had 673 Wi-Fi public access hotspots and that 27,316 people had signed up for a new home-access service, most of them at the cheapest and slowest connection rate of 1 megabit per second.
Radio and TV Martí were created by Congress in 1985 and 1990, respectively, to provide Cubans with information their government was censoring or not publishing.
“When President Ronald Reagan signed the Radio Broadcasting to Cuba Act on October 11, 1983, which passed by a wide margin in the House and unanimously in the Senate, he said that OCB ‘responds to an important foreign policy initiative of my administration: to break Fidel Castro's monopoly on news and information within Cuba,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
“He explained that it was essential to provide outside news to the Cuban people so that they ‘will be in a better position to make Cuba's leaders accountable for their conduct in foreign policy, economic management, and human rights,’ ” the Cuban-American South Florida Republican added.
But the Cuban government tried to jam the signals from the start. Its interference with TV Martí was more effective and the station was jokingly dismissed as “la TV que no se ve” — the TV that's not seen.”
Despite the slow expansion of the internet in Cuba and the government controls, the digital world was therefore seen as an additional channel for delivering Martí content to the island.
“We don't understand how, despite all the technology options available, the Castro family regime can block the penetration of those channels,” said opposition activist Antonio Rodiles. “It is vital to review and study a way to make these tools more efficient. Nevertheless, I believe the platform that should get priority is the internet.”
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Under Carlos García, who directed the OCB from 2010 to 2015, the agency started to search for alternative ways of delivering radio and TV content to the island, as well as the digital Martínoticias.com. García started out using DVDs and USB flash drives that were smuggled into the island, and developed Piramideo, a social network based on cellphone text messages.
“Previously, the strategy was to create the copies here in bulk and then import it to the island and, of course, they would have to go through customs and there were substantial amount of laws, not to mention that the people that would carry them were being exposed,” said Mendes. “Even though most of them were not aware of the content — they thought they were just DVDs — the reality is that they were exposed to the content if they ever got examined” by Cuban officials.
Malule González, who succeeded Garcia in 2015, said in an email that she started to look for ways to use the internet to download the content inside Cuba and reduce “the risks for those who ‘delivered’ the material … and eliminate the use of equipment ‘made by the U.S. government’ to download that content. … It's well known that the possession of such equipment risks putting those people in prison.”
González increased the number of collaborators on the island, experimented with posting programs on Facebook, which is not censored in Cuba, and pushed to modernize Radio Martí's transmitter in Greenville, North Carolina.
She also eliminated Piramideo, which had proven to be costly and was being used on the island for marketing and even “illegal activities,” she added. “The arrival of other platforms such as IMO and Zapya were more cost effective and useful for the dissemination of information, which is the mission of the OCB.”
Cuba's official news media had denounced Piramideo as “a giant subversive strategy against Cuba.” By 2016, it had gathered 930,000 cellphone numbers in Cuba.
Under Mendes, the OCB activated some of the projects drafted before his arrival and made significant changes in the Martí content, including replacing a program on the air for more than 30 years.
The OCB also has been more aggressive in distributing its content to the island using commercial satellites and Bluetooth technology. Although Havana bans the importation of unauthorized telecommunications gear, Cubans have smuggled in parabolic antennas and other technologies for unmonitored internet access.
Authorities have largely turned a blind eye to illegal Wi-Fi networks that cover most of Havana and other cities as well as the underground content-sharing network known as El Paquete, which distributes weekly packages of entertainment, news, sports and other materials using hard drives and USB flash memories.
“We have found a way to distribute … the content to the island immediately after it is recorded,” said Mendes. TV Martí programs are broadcast from two commercial satellites, recorded on the island and then distributed by DVDs, USB drives and cellphones.
Mendes added that the OCB has recruited “a substantial number of people” on the island to distribute its content.
Cuban government considers the Radio and TV Martí programming to be “subversive.” Mendes said he's conscious of the risks but added that the work is necessary.
“Only people that live in first world societies, that have never had to deal with a revolution or counterrevolution and have lived in democracies all their lives, do they think that regime change or actual counterrevolution can happen without anybody taking any risks,” Mendes said.
Born in Portugal, he witnessed the so-called Carnation Revolution in 1974, which toppled the authoritarian regime established by Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.
“When I see people that are willing to insert stuff into the island in order to help telling the truth about the Castro regime, I have an enormous amount of admiration for them and I do expect that they understand that the risks they undertake are risks that they are taking on behalf of the Cuban people, in order to restore democracy in what is now an anachronistic 60-year-old regime,” he added.
Mendes' strategies may have suffered a blow with his resignation this week, but a BBG statement said that “the focus of the OCB will remain the same.”
Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio said Friday he would be involved in the search for a new director.
“We are working closely with President [Donald] Trump and his administration to find a strong leader to guide TV/Radio Martí in its important mission, to break the Castro regime’s blockade on news and information,” he said.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres