Future of Radio and TV Martí in the air amid possible broadcasting change

Radio Martí studios in Miami.
Radio Martí studios in Miami. Miami Herald File/2006

In a surprise move, the U.S. government last week announced plans for the possible establishment of a “Spanish-language grantee” to perform the functions of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which oversees Radio and TV Martí.

Though the federal officials who made the announcement did not provide specific details, some observers speculated that the move could mark the first concrete step to modify the arrangement under which Radio and TV Martí has been operating since the service was established under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

The announcement came a little more than a year after President Barack Obama ordered the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Though there are now embassies in Havana and Washington, Cuba has continued to press a number of demands including the shutdown of Radio and TV Martí.

Officials of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees broadcast services to various countries including Cuba and the Voice of America, made the announcement Tuesday during a telephone news conference from Washington.

A Broadcasting Board document that referred to the proposal said: “Spanish Language Grantee for Cuba: BBG requests authority to establish a new Spanish language, non-federal media organization that would receive a BBG grant and perform the functions of the current Office of Cuba Broadcasting.”

María “Malule” González, the newly appointed director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, will not alter her office’s goals toward Cuba.

“We’re going to keep doing our mission, which is to provide Cubans on the island information that they don’t have access to,” she said.

Tim Shamble, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812, which represents Radio and TV Martí employees, spoke against the proposal.

“We oppose it,” he told el Nuevo Herald. “It would take away civil service rights of the employees and federal union rights as well.”

The announcement stirred alarm among Radio and TV Martí employees in Miami.

A Radio and TV Martí journalist, who asked not be identified, said he and his colleagues feared “losing their federal benefits” in case of a “privatization of operations.”

In the telephone news conference, BBG executive director John F. Lansing said the proposed change was mainly aimed at cost savings and providing the organization with greater flexibility.

“Number one, the mission of OCB would be completely unaffected,” Lansing said. “It would be the exact same mission, at the same funding levels and nothing would alter that. Secondly, any change, any defederalization of OCB would still be subject to a legislative process, which may or may not, indeed, happen and third the effect that it would have would depend on whether a) that it happens and b) if it did happen how it was designed at some point in the future.”

Previously, an initial draft of the 2015 budget proposal for the State Department and foreign operations maintained the level of financing for OCB but foresaw the possibility that it could merged with the Voice of America’s Latin America division.

Some observers saw the new proposal as a way to alter or end, if not official funding for the service, then editorial influence over broadcasts to the island.

“This has to do with the rapprochement toward Cuba,” said the Radio and TV Martí journalist who asked not to be identified. “It’s one of the things that Cuba has always demanded. They don’t want to say they are shutting it down, in order to save face with the Versailles crowd, but at the same time they could now say that it is not the government doing it if taken to task over it.”

His reference to the “Versailles crowd” was a symbolic allusion to orthodox or traditional Cuban exiles who typically oppose Cuban policies or U.S. policy changes toward Cuba.

“The game is rigged,” he said.

In January 2015, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., eliminated the so-called AeroMartí program, which beamed radio and television signals from an aircraft. In light of criticism of Radio and TV Martí’s low audience, OCB at the time focused its strategy on expanding the Martí Noticias digital platform, strengthened its network of correspondents within the island and created an alternative content distribution system via CDs and USB flash drives.

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