The Voice of Subversion:
An Analysis of the Purpose and Content of Radio Marti
by Tyler Kaspar
In ways that military interventions and official diplomacy cannot, international radio broadcasting has the ability to penetrate borders with foreign information and ideology, wielding an undeniable power of international diplomacy and influence. Radio waves bring information directly to the people without the filter of government information ministries, and allow a unified message to be heard and interpreted by a whole population. In an age where information is the prime commodity, the war of whose ideas will conquer is increasingly important to pursue.
As such, Radio Marti, the voice of the U.S. government to Cuba, has been broadcasting to Cuba since 1985 as a means to provide information and influence the Cuban people. Its stated goal is to fill a void left by the lack of information by the Cuban government and to prepare for and aid a democratic transition. Broken down, however, that positive and seemingly altruistic mission comes into question. If the United States is indeed engaged in a bitter war of ideas not yet resolved from the Cold war, is it merely using the station to inform the citizenry of global events, as well as fill the void of Cuban information left by a secretive Cuban government? Or is its mission to aid the transition to democracy much more subversive and encouraging of rebellion?
While information is objective in theory, it is the character of radio broadcasting that so-called objective information is disseminated through the lens of the broadcasting culture. Clearly, international radio broadcasting would not be used to inform those who think like the Americans. If the tenets of democracy were valued by all, Radio Free Europe, Radio Sawa (to the Middle East) and Radio Marti would become obsolete. Indeed, U.S. foreign policy over the last half of the twentieth century seems to have been wedded to the idea of imposing superior ideas on another culture. The U.S. policy of international broadcasting, then, must seek to win the war of ideas by spreading democratic and capitalist ideas to the farthest corners of the Earth.
U.S. policy to Cuba since 1959 substantiates such a claim. Although stated U.S. policy does not explicitly include regime change, the United States has been actively engaged a war across the Caribbean for the past half century. The Helms Burton Act of 1996 codified the trade embargo on Cuba, making it illegal to trade goods, travel, or invest in Cuba. Discussion of Fidel Castro by U.S. officials is limited to the simple discourse that he must be removed from his post as head of the Cuban state, rather than cooperation or reformation. Currently, the U.S. government been accused by the Cuban government of funding dissident groups in Cuba and encouraging rebellion. Against the backdrop of the greater War on Terror, U.S. policy toward the Cuban dictatorship increasingly resembles U.S. policy toward Iraq, and other so-called rogue dictatorships. As a means to communicate democratic ideology over oceans and across borders, Radio Marti is used to communicate this U.S. policy, and to incite the Cuban people to change the regime, not simply to fill an information void.
Regardless of the important political purposes served by Radio Marti, however, for almost fifteen years the station was virtually unresearched by independendent scholars. Without the ability to hear the broadcasts in the United States, and little ability to travel to Cuba to listen (the Cuban government also heavily jams the broadcasts), the American people have been more or less ignorant to the exact purpose and broadcast content of Radio Marti. In 2003, however, the U.S. government revolutionized the Office of Cuba Broadcasting by establishing itself on the Internet1. Now, Cubans can access Radio Marti online without Cuban government jamming. But this also means that U.S. citizens with a few hours on their hands can get a earful of de facto U.S. policy toward Cuba for analysis and criticism.
By analyzing the broadcasts of Radio Marti, it is important to ask the question of whether the station diverges from its stated mission of objective and balanced information, or it stays in line with its principles. In developing this question, attention must be brought to the role of propaganda broadcasting in international relations. Next, the history of radio broadcasting to Cuba will be discussed, followed by a brief history of U.S.-Cuban relations. After establishing the context of current U.S.-Cuban relations, the data from two months of Radio Marti broadcasts will be presented. Finally, the data will be analyzed to reveal the true nature of Radio Marti, and whether or not it conforms to the ideals set out by the U.S. government in its charter.
Balanced Information or Psychological Warfare?
According to the Radio Broadcasting to Cuba Act of 1983, the stated purpose of the station was to be “an Act to provide for the broadcasting of accurate information to the people of Cuba, and for other purposes”2. Furthermore, the Act establishes:
that it is the policy of the United States to support the right of the people
of Cuba to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers, in accordance with article 19 of Universal Declaration of
that, consonant with this policy, radio broadcasting to Cuba may be effective in furthering the open communication of accurate information and ideas to the
people of Cuba, in particular information about Cuba
that such broadcasting to Cuba, operated in a manner not inconsistent with the
broad foreign policy of the United States and in accordance with high professional standards, would be in the national interest; and
that the Voice of America already broadcasts to Cuba information that
represents America, not any single segment of American society, and includes a
balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and
institutions but that there is a need for broadcasts to Cuba which provide news, commentary and other information about events in Cuba and elsewhere to promote
the cause of freedom in Cuba3.
In essence, accurate and balanced information is the tool through which Radio Marti reaches the Cuban people. Radio Marti will fill the void left by the Castro government with regard to access to information and free thought. Former director Salvador Lew echoes that the “fundamental objective is to help the Cuban citizens to enjoy the right to receive information and ideas, despite borders”4. Practically everyone involved is adamant that the stated mission is its only mission.
However, analysis of Radio Marti may indicate that the goal is more likely to aggressively aid the war of ideas between the United States and Cuba. After all, what is the purpose of solely broadcasting information to the Cuban people when foreign policy actions indicate that the U.S. government wants Fidel Castro deposed? Information, too, often has a subversive characteric to it due to cultural biases. Psychological warfare, rather than the dissemination of democratic ideals, may more accurately characterize the operations of the U.S. government. As defined by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, psychological warfare is characterized as “planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, or individuals”5.
The U.S. government, however, does not readily admit to be engaged in psychological warfare to break the Cuban regime. After all, psychological warfare is the stuff of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Philip Taylor theorizes that
Because PSYOPS [psychological operations] support national objectives it is
being used during the 1990s to support American foreign policy objectives
based on the premise of consolidating ‘victory’ over communism in a new
world order – although such explicit statements cannot be found in any of
the public documents. Instead, they speak of a rededication to fostering
‘democratic peace and prosperity’6.
Indeed, this study will question whether “psychological operations” is a more apt term for the radio station than information and democracy promotion. As Taylor postulates, perhaps the government definition of democracy promotion includes subversion and incitement of rebellion. If so, Radio Marti very well could be fulfilling its purpose, just not exactly what Congress had in mind under the Radio Broadcasting to Cuba Act.