Last month, Cuba’s top diplomat, Jose Ramon Cabanas Rodriguez, made a day trip to Tampa. He attended a luncheon with the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, visited with officials at the Port and Tampa International Airport, and met with the editorial boards of the Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Times. Facilitated by Congresswoman Kathy Castor, who last year called for an end to the economic embargo against Cuba, his visit was another sign that the Tampa establishment has finally decided to consider warmer relations with the Raoul Castro-led Communist government, 54 years after the Eisenhower administration imposed trade restrictions on everything but food and medical supplies.
But those warming relations aren’t going over too well with Radio and TV Martí, the U.S.-based anti-Castro broadcaster. A nearly three-and-a-half minute report on the network questioned Castor’s motives and hinted at a hidden agenda behind the visit, which was authorized by the State Department. Among those featured in the story was Chamber spokesperson Felicia Harvey, who explained to correspondent Jorge Riopedre that the Chamber is a private organization that wasn’t violating any protocol by hosting Cabanas. The story also gave substantial airtime to two of the Castro regime’s leading critics in Tampa, Mario Quevedo and attorney Ralph Fernandez.
A little too much airtime, according to Benjamin Willis of the group Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFÉ). He called the report a “bunch of McCartheysque speculation as to what the meeting with the Chamber was.
“They were trying to make the case that this was some type of clandestine attempt to have relations with Cuba,” Willis says. “It’s just par for the course for TV Martí,” which he describes as a taxpayer boondoggle.
CAFÉ is calling on President Obama to demand that Radio and TV Martí provide a “modicum of order and coherence” with U.S. national interests.Radio Martí was created by the U.S. government in 1983 as a means to provide “impartial” information to Cubans to counter the official Castro-government line. TV Martí came into existence in 1990. Both are run by the federally funded Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) based in Miami, and have been derided by critics as pure propaganda since their inception.
But it’s not very effective propaganda, if that’s its purpose. A report produced by the Committee on Foreign Relations in 2010 reported that less than 2 percent of Cubans listen to the service. That same report also said that Radio and TV Martí have received “negligible support” from the Cuban people and have had minimal impact on Cuban government behavior and policy.
Three years ago Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) introduced the Broadcast Savings Act and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) introduced the Stop Wasting Taxpayer Money on Cuba Broadcasting Act, both aimed at shutting down Radio and TV Martí. Their initiatives went nowhere in Congress. The federal budget for FY2014 gives the Cuba broadcasting program over $27 million, roughly $3.2 million more than the administration requested.
“It is truly disgraceful that American taxpayer money is funding a propaganda machine for extremist, paramilitary Cubans,” says Al Fox with the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy.
Ralph Fernandez disagrees, saying, “Anytime that you promote information to a restricted state like Cuba, I think you’re doing basically the best you can.” Like other supporters of the embargo, he also questions the methodology used to assess the paltry ratings of Radio and TV Martí in Cuba.
When asked for comment, Kathy Castor spokeswoman Marcia Mejia said, “Representative Castor is an outspoken advocate for an improved dialogue with Cuba to benefit families and business in the Tampa Bay area and speed economic and human rights reforms on the island,” adding that Ambassador Cabanas’ visits to Port Tampa Bay and Tampa International Airport were “well publicized.”
While Fox and Castor’s fight to end sanctions doesn’t appear to be going anywhere in Washington, their sentiments are gaining ground nationally, and even more importantly here in Florida.
Last week the nonpartisan Atlantic Council published a poll showing that 56 percent of Americans now favor a new policy toward Cuba. In Florida the number was at 63 percent, and in Miami-Dade County, the literal citadel of Castro hatred, 64 percent said they wanted a new policy. And both major Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Charlie Crist and Nan Rich, say they also support ending the sanctions.