Cubans desperately need a strong Radio Television Martí. Biden should restore its budget | Opinion

·4 min read

As Cuba’s economy continues to crumble and its political infrastructure weakens, it is even more necessary for the U.S. government to have a conduit to the Cuban people.

Fortunately, such a conduit already exists in the federally funded Miami-based news network, Radio Televisión Martí, also known as the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB).

For almost four years, I saw OCB’s effectiveness while working there as a White House-appointed senior official for the Trump administration.

Since the network’s inception in 1985, the Castro regime has tried to obstruct OCB’s statutory mission of providing objective news from the free world to Cubans.

The regime blocks OCB’s online domain and tries to jam its AM radio and television signal. In 1991, the regime even boasted its intelligence operations had infiltrated Martí.

As a result, some reports suggest Martí reaches a low number of Cubans on the island, but independent surveys say otherwise.

Although OCB’s AM radio signal is blocked in Havana, on-island sources have confirmed it is heard outside the city, and its shortwave radio signal has always been heard island-wide. While OCB’s conventional television signal is blocked, its audio-visual broadcasts now reach Cuban smartphone users via social media.

In 2015, an independent survey conducted by the private polling firm Bendixen & Amandi International found that 20 percent of Cubans living on the island listen to Radio Martí, and in 2017, the same firm estimated all of OCB’s mediums collectively reached 11 percent of Cuba’s population.

That survey also said 97 percent of Martí users trust its news, 78 percent said it provides news unavailable elsewhere and 75 percent said it helps them form opinions on important issues.

Despite its proven track record of success, OCB has faced harsh and unfair criticism.

During the Obama era, when the Democratic Party made the miscalculation of believing Cuba would reciprocate diplomatic efforts with pro-democracy measures, OCB faced congressional proposals to strip the network’s editorial independence by removing it from Miami and integrating it into Voice of America’s Latin America news division in Washington.

As a result, OCB’s supporters struggled for eight years to stop the Obama administration and its allies in Congress from bowing to the regime’s demands to defund it.

Although the Trump administration reversed many of Obama’s Cuba polices, it did not do enough to protect OCB’s $28 million budget from the federal career employees at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) who were unaware of how important OCB is to the Cuban people.

As a result, OMB reduced OCB’s FY2020 and 2021 budget by more than half.

Fortunately, Congress temporarily authorized OCB’s parent agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media to use reserve funds to temporarily bridge this financial gap for 2020 and 2021.

Still, Congress and the White House need to restore OCB’s original budget of close to $30 million with all deliberate speed.

At the least, OCB’s current, low budget will force it to minimize its programming and reduce broadcasts, which will transmit a different type of message to the Cuban people — a political message that supporting the Cuban people is a low priority for the U.S. government.

At a time when the island is inching closer toward transition more than ever before, transmitting such a political message is harmful.

Fortunately, on April 7, several Florida-based members of Congress sent a letter echoing such sentiments to President Biden, asking him to provide an “adequate funding level” for OCB of $30 million.

The outdated Obama-era proposals of integrating OCB into any other federal network would be devastating for Cubans who cling to Radio Television Martí as an inspirational symbol.

I realized this in February 2019, when I was sent to Central America with one of OCB’s top reporters on assignment to rendezvous with more than 100 stranded Cuban refugees who were trapped deep in the Panamanian jungle near the Colombian border.

When we arrived, those Cubans cheered the name of Martí’s reporter and physically embraced us. This crucial moment proved to me how important Radio Television Martí has become to Cubans.

OCB’s effect transcends that of journalism — it reminds Cubans they are not forgotten, which should remain a priority for any American president.

If Biden wants to show support for the Cuban people instead of the regime, he will empower Radio Television Martí by restoring its budget and preserving their editorial independence in Miami amid the Cuban diaspora — where it belongs.

Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is an attorney and the former director of the U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Televisión Martí.