New political realities, technological advances, a Democratically controlled Congress and a new president are creating an ideal opportunity to change the United States' obsolete policy toward Cuba. The trade embargo and other attempts to isolate the island have been foreign policy failures that needlessly inflicted more pain on Cubans in both countries, and a more progressive approach is long overdue.
The trade embargo against Cuba begun in 1962 under President Kennedy failed to bring down Fidel Castro. The Reagan administration started Radio Marti in 1985 in an effort to promote democracy by countering the island nation's state-run media. Five years later, TV Marti began broadcasting. Now, $500 million later, a critical report from the research arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, reinforces that the Marti broadcasts have failed. In 2004, President Bush put unreasonable limits on family visits to the island. These sanctions have not worked, either.
Change should be on the way. The House approved a spending bill Wednesday that would make it easier for Americans to visit immediate relatives in Cuba, and President Obama has pledged to allow Cuban-American families to visit the island more frequently. Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has issued a new report that reaffirms the failures of the embargo.
The two Marti programs provide the best concrete evidence that the United States has been following an ineffective policy for nearly 50 years. According to the GAO, less than 2 percent of Cuban's 11 million residents polled annually since 2003 said they tuned in to the stations. Not a single respondent in a 2008 telephone survey of nearly 600 Cubans, conducted by a third-nation firm, said they had viewed a TV Marti show in the last 12 months. The joke is that TV Marti is "the world's least-watched news station."
What's more, it appears the political viewpoints of Cuban exiles, which make up the leadership of the stations, have permeated the journalistic judgment. The GAO cited concerns with the lack of balance, objectivity and the use of independent sources in the reporting. During a visit to watch production of a TV Marti broadcast, St. Petersburg Times Latin American correspondent David Adams witnessed editorializing and unsubstantiated allegations about torture and deaths in Cuban jails. A report on the GAO report left out key criticisms.
The Marti stations were created at a very different time — both in foreign relations and technology. Now many Havana residents are able to watch Miami's Spanish-language TV stations, and Cubans have access to much more media, from DVDs to flash drives. While the Cuban state still controls the news, the experiment of Marti has strayed far from its own path. What was meant as a promotion of democracy appears to have devolved into an expensive vehicle for anti-Castro propaganda. It's time to pull the plug.