U.S. broadcasts to Cuba get stronger

Miami Herald:

MIAMI — The U.S. government’s official broadcasts to Cuba and the government-funded Voice of America are for the first time regularly sharing resources – a move officials hope will enhance both services and which could blunt longtime criticism of the Cuban broadcasts.

Some also question whether the move signals the beginning of the end for the controversial U.S. Office of Cuban Broadcasting.

Last week, the office’s TV and Radio Marti services opened their studios to VOA’s Spanish division to jointly produce a regular half-hour radio show. “A Fondo” or “In Depth” provides news and analysis from around the hemisphere. It was developed in part to target Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez has cracked down on opposition and independent media and frequently criticizes U.S. foreign policy.

“I am looking into this issue to ensure that this is an effort to maximize resources to expand U.S. coverage in the region and not a back door to reducing U.S. broadcasts to Cuba,” U.S Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, told The Associated Press.

“If this reduces the capability of Radio and TV Marti, it would be another concession to the Cuban regime who fears the uncensored information these broadcasts offer,” added the legislator, a Cuban-American and champion of the decades-old U.S. embargo of Cuba.

Miami-based Radio and TV Marti, the government’s only foreign broadcasts based outside of Washington, have for years endured charges that the virulent, anti-communist tone of some of their programs was ineffective. Critics – particularly those who oppose Washington’s Cuba policies – also question whether anyone on the island even watches the more expensive TV Marti. The Cuban government generally blocks it.

The association between the VOA and the Martis could help the latter’s reputation, said Nicholas Cull, a University of Southern California professor who has studied the government’s foreign broadcasts.

“My feeling is that Marti has had a checkered history, and that anything that can pull its output into line with the high journalistic standards of VOA would be for the good,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the Martis’ most ardent critics, had a more cynical take.

“I think they realize they’re on borrowed time with the Cuba project, so I think they’re trying to merge it in as much as they can with Voice of America,” he said.

Alberto Mascaro, a Miami native and former Office of Cuban Broadcasting executive, recently took the helm of VOA’s Spanish-language service in Washington. He says the cooperation is not about politics but about the best use of resources.

“Miami being a gateway city, it’s a place where we can glean information and guests that in Washington just may not be as accessible. It’s a whole additional talent pool,” said Mascaro, who hopes to serve as a bridge between the two broadcasts.

VOA has news stringers south of the U.S. border but no longer has any bureaus there – making the Miami studios all the more important as Washington seeks to counter increasing criticism from Chavez, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.

Over the last year, the Marti studios have occasionally produced other shows for VOA and served as a training hub for its journalists from across the region. In recent weeks, VOA has also relied on Marti’s Miami studios for much of its broadcasting to Haiti, using local Creole-speaking reporters from the area’s large Haitian-American community.

Still, the change comes as the Office of Cuban Broadcasting faces budget cuts. Last year it was forced to lay off more than 20 staffers. While the larger VOA’s 2011 budget request of $206.8 million is up slightly over previous years, Cuban broadcasting’s request of $29.2 million is down about $4 million from 2007.

Mascaro insists both organizations adhere to the same standards and serve important but distinct missions. Marti provides a counterbalance to Cuba’s tightly controlled, pro-government media.

“It’s not trying to provide a pro-Castro perspective. They already get that – and only that,” he said. VOA’s job is to offer a broader spectrum of balanced news about the U.S. and the world, with politically and culturally relevant information for each region.

The two services differ on the technical side as well. Because the Cuba broadcasts are not welcome by the country’s government, the U.S. must beam them directly into the island via shortwave, AM broadcasts and satellite. While VOA’s broadcasts also use shortwave and satellite, and now with “Al Fondo,” some AM, they rely more heavily on local affiliates.

Yet that may change, too. VOA’s Spanish-language radio is carried by only a handful of affiliates in Venezuela, and its TV service by even fewer. Given Chavez’s recent decision to take the opposition cable and satellite Radio Caracas Television International off the air, it could soon lose even those platforms. And that would make it all the more dependent on the same modes of transmission the Martis rely on.

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