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A Tale of Two Transitions
Posted on Aug 1, 2006
Perhaps the best and most costly example of U.S. inefficiency in the fight for a democratic Cuba can be seen in Radio Marti and Television Marti. Founded in 1985 and 1990, respectively, and with station headquarters in Miami, Radio and Television Marti have sought to broadcast shortwave radio and satellite television to the Cuban people. The 150 full-time employees create crude news and original programming that vie to undermine Castro. The problem, though, is that hardly anyone in Cuba is tuning in.
Around the same time as the programs began, Castro undertook measures to ensure that they would be received by as few Cubans as possible: He installed a shortwave station on the same channel to muddle Radio Marti?s reception and actively jammed the signal of Television Marti. Even one of Fidel?s seven-hour ramble sessions is preferable to the static-filled noise that remains.
Statistically, Castro?s preventive measures seem to have paid off. In a 2001 study, the Board of Broadcast Governors surveyed a thousand Cubans to gauge the effectiveness of TV Marti. Of those queried, 997 had not watched it in the previous week. The same government organization performed a similar survey earlier that found that nine out of 10 Cubans had never even heard of TV Marti. One might suppose that these statistics would catch the attention of the CAFC, which would recommend the abolition of the money pit.
The CAFC, though, advised a contrary course, recommending a huge increase in funding to break the Castro regime?s information blockade—including the purchase of a $10-million plane designed to boost Television Marti?s signal. In all, according to a report in The Panama News, the U.S. has sunk nearly $500 million into Radio and TV Marti since their inceptions. The figure bears repeating: $500 million. Enough to film and market two Superman movies.
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Equally baffling was the CAFC?s recommendation to raise the budgets of Cuban-American nonprofits that seek to incite political change on the island. Its 2006 report specifies that $15 million should be given every two years to ?international efforts at strengthening civil society,? (i.e. U.S.-run nongovernmental organizations) and that $31 million should be allocated to the island to ?support independent civil society.? In total, it recommended spending just under $50 million over a two-year period to help dissidents raise their voices.
A number of problems immediately surface. Like the Marti networks, dispensing money to Cuban-American-run NGOs has proved historically ineffective. Washington-based groups like the Center for a Free Cuba receive around $400,000 annually from USAID alone, and often receive a similar amount from the loosely government-related National Endowment for Democracy.
A few months back, I had the opportunity to see how an anti-Castro NGO, Center for a Free Cuba, was spending its money. One of the heads of the organization made a visit to a nonprofit I was working with in New York City after my return from Cuba. A Bay of Pigs veteran who had not seen his homeland since that failed endeavor, he asked me a series of probing questions about my three years in Cuba that demonstrated to me that he had only the vaguest idea of what life was really like in his native land. I asked him about his organization?s propaganda activities; he removed from his bag a number of pamphlets and books on topics that ranged from children?s stories of living beneath a democratic system to the writings of Vaclav Havel translated into Spanish.
His favorite—as, admittedly, was mine—was a crude flip book comprising freeze frames that sequentially exposed Fidel?s mortality as seen through his now famous collapse in Santa Clara in 2004. I asked the man how many of these he had run off, and he said nearly 20,000. The problem with his organization quickly became as clear: By meeting?s end, he was inquiring whether I could help him deliver the counterrevolutionary trinkets to Cuba. If you?re asking a 20-something-year-old documentary filmmaker for help in running blockades, your business model isn?t all that solid.
I knew from my time in Cuba that that man?s problem was not an isolated one. In fact, it was symptomatic of the difficulties that USAID has encountered in financing NGOs focused on Cuba since the program modestly began in the mid-1990s. In its 2001 report to Congress on Cuba grant recipients, USAID reported that 13 of the 17 nonprofit NGOs encountered great difficulty in meeting their goals, thanks to the repressive environment in Cuba that prevents the dissemination of books like the one I was presented with last winter in New York. Given Castro?s tunnel vision for preservation of Communism on Cuba, this should be no surprise.
More intractable than the problems encountered by groups like the CFC are the harsh repercussions directed at dissidents on the island who receive money and supplies from the U.S. government. Although President Bush and Condoleezza Rice remain rhetorically resolute about their friendship with the Cuban people, especially the elusive ?civil society,? the kinship seems one-sided in its inability to listen to ?civil? friends like on-island dissident Miriam Leiva. In a 2004 dispatch to Salon.com, she argued that the money allocated to stir up dissent only ?serve[s] as evidence for the Cuban government to crack down on those who receive it.? In her opinion, accepting money from the U.S. government opens the door to accusations of mercenary acts, allowing Castro leeway for mass arrests. Perhaps with greater punch, Leiva charged that ?the majority of the money will stay in Florida—and we will go to prison.? After the most recent report was made public, she remained unmoved, reaffirming to the Chicago Tribune?s Gary Marx that ?the government is always looking for excuses to crack down on us.?
Indeed, interim successor and head of the armed forces Raul Castro recently made it clear that he had no time for mercenaries and Miami-rooted rabble rousing. On June 14, a month before the CAFC?s report landed on Bush?s desk and just under two months before Fidel Castro ?surprisingly? went under the knife, the younger Castro said in a speech that recent U.S. activities had confirmed in his mind that Cuba remained on Bush?s most-hungry-to-invade list. Raul?s proof? The United States?:
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