By the middle of 2016, it seemed like Marco Rubio had become a failed presidential candidate doomed to sit at home on his couch going bald while watching Donald Trump confuse the lyrics of "God Bless America" with the theme song from Growing Pains. Improbably, since he took office, Trump has instead let Senator Rubio influence every major Latin American policy decision. Along with Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Rubio helped draft Trump's Cuban engagement rollback last year, for example.
Now Rubio helped ensure that Tomás Regalado, Miami's previous mayor, will take over the U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which runs Radio Martí and TV Martí — propaganda networks that blast programming at Cuba from a government outpost in Doral as well as from satellites and airplanes that in the past have circled the Communist island.
The decision has so far been hailed a "victory" for Rubio's burgeoning resumé as a fighter for Latin American freedom or whatever the senator has convinced himself he's doing. Because Regalado worked as a radio broadcaster for years before turning to politics, news outlets have also painted the staffing decision a stabilizing move after some high-profile resignations at the networks within the past 12 months. (Regalado's son Tommy also works at Radio Martí, prompting questions about government nepotism.)
But here's the thing: Radio Martí and TV Martí suck. And they don't just suck in the way admitted tools of government propaganda and American imperialism suck. The stations suck because they don't even work.
They're not even good at spreading propaganda. Despite the fact that U.S. taxpayers have spent nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars on the networks over time, the government has no real idea whom the broadcasts are reaching, if any of the content is connecting with Cubans, or how well the Cuban government is able to disrupt Radio Martí and TV Martí broadcast signals. The U.S. government has spent roughly $800 million on the networks since the mid-'80s.
In 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) studied the networks and found that TV Martí was reaching less than 1 percent of the entire Cuban population — a number that has remained pretty much stable since the station first aired in 1990. The GAO admitted its estimates were essentially guesswork, because Cubans can be punished for admitting they listen to the stations and were obviously reluctant to report how often they tune in to the station.
But even with those caveats in mind, lawmakers seem fairly sure almost no one on the island can see the TV network's broadcasts. Even after the OCB began flying broadcast planes over the island and blasting TV signals from satellites, viewership didn't seem to increase:
While there are no nationally representative data on the size of OCB’s audience, the best available audience research — IBB telephone surveys — indicates that TV Martí’s audience size is small. Specifically, less than 1 percent of respondents to IBB telephone surveys since 2003 reported that they had watched TV Martí during the past week. Notably, results from the 2006 and 2008 telephone surveys show no increase in reported TV Martí viewership following the launch of AeroMartí and DirecTV broadcasting in 2006. OCB broadcasts face jamming by the Cuban government. However, despite some efforts by IBB and OCB, they still lack reliable data on the number, type, and effectiveness of the signal jammers. As a result, it is unclear how much of the television signals can be heard and seen in Cuba.
Given that the station is an outright propaganda outlet transparently designed to stir unrest in Cuba, the GAO also noted the station lacks "journalistic standards" and likely did not comply with international broadcast regulations.
Yet the OCB still has a budget of $28.1 million per year. The radio station was created in 1983 and began broadcasting in 1985, amid Ronald Reagan's often-brutal crackdown on Latin American governments deemed hostile to U.S. interests. The TV station began broadcasting five years later under George H.W. Bush. According to the Washington Post, TV Martí was able to broadcast clearly for only 20 minutes before the Cuban government figured out how to jam the signal.
A State Department report from 1990 later noted there is "no effective way to overcome Cuban jamming." Daniel Walsh, an Appalachian State University historian who wrote a book chronicling America's anti-Cuban propaganda efforts, has referred to TV Martí as a "complete disaster." He also noted in a separate study that the programming is easily influenced by government lobbying from Cuban hard-liners. In the past decade, TV Martí has begun distributing DVDs and flash drives with content on them across the island, as well as reportedly sneaking illegal "Broadband Global Area Network" transmitters into the country.
In 2011, TV Martí tried to topple Fidel Castro by sending out spam text messages to Cuban cell phones despite the fact that only 10 percent of Cubans have cell phones and that everyone, even paramilitary right-wing guerrillas, hates spam texts.
The GAO also criticized other government agencies for conducting faulty studies to prove the project was working. In 1990, the U.S. Information Agency estimated that 27 percent of Cubans were watching the TV channel. However, when the GAO looked at that data, the accountability office realized the sample was only 112 people — far from a representative number.
Recent studies haven't exactly painted the stations in a positive light either. In 2015, the Miami-based polling firm Bendixen & Amandi conducted its own study of Radio Martí fandom on the island nation and found that roughly 20 percent of Cubans were listening to the radio station at least once a week. But that study also came with a huge caveat: Interviewees were twice as likely to have listened to government-run news in Cuba during that same time period, and only 10 percent of the nation even gets its news mainly from the radio. A full 80 percent get their news from TV, just like Americans.
Even with 20 percent of Cubans tuning into American propaganda radio from time to time, Cubans who answered the Bendixen & Amandi survey didn't exactly seem desperate to revolt. Though most Cubans reported negative views of the Castro family, 72 percent of respondents said they liked their education system, and 68 percent said they were satisfied with the country's government-run health care. The respondents certainly weren't happy with the entire political system: Close to 80 percent disliked the nation's economic predicament, while respondents also said they wanted more supermarkets and housing. Nearly three-quarters of Cubans said they felt they could not express themselves freely in public. Still, the results didn't exactly indicate widespread political anger.
The Office of Cuba Broadcasting began posting news online in 2011. The OCB runs martínoticias.com, an online news outlet designed to look like a regular ol' news website, save for the sucking black hole that is the lack of negative news about Donald Trump, his administration, or America in general. Though the site has, at least, covered the looming Trump-Russia investigation with some regularity, the site skips around quoting Trump's garbled, senile speeches, ignores his various vengeful tweet-fights, and has skipped reporting on the president's hilariously corrupt staff.
There's not a single mention of EPA Chief Scott Pruitt's seemingly endless corruption scandals, nor does there seem to be any mention of the time then-Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci accused then-White House strategist Steve Bannon of trying to "suck his own cock." According to MartíNoticias, the Trump White House just simply boring, which is the least accurate way to possibly frame this administration.
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Perhaps more important, it's unclear why any Cuban with access to the unrestricted internet would choose to knowingly waste time on a painfully boring American propaganda website instead of, say, reading the Miami Herald, Breitbart News, the Nation, My Little Pony fan forums, or literotica.com.
Despite all of this, it's been nearly impossible to persuade anyone to fully defund the project. In 2013, the Washington Post wrote that the OCB was blowing about $80,000 per year to keep an AeroMartí satellite-broadcasting plane grounded in Georgia because it didn't have enough funding to fly, but the government also wasn't willing to decommission the plane either. That project was finally killed in 2015.
So almost no one can see the TV station in Cuba, and the small percentage who listen to the radio station with some regularity don't seem to be particularly negative toward their government. But Miami's hard-line, anti-Castro Republicans insist the project is a raging success. The logic they use to make this argument is often hilarious. Take it from Diaz-Balart:
"If it wasn’t important, why would they block the signals?" Diaz-Balart asked the Washington Post rhetorically in 2013. "So we know that it’s effective."