Obama budget tweaks broadcasts to Cuba

News from Cuba | Wednesday, 13 May 2009

By LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ, AP Hispanic Affairs Writer

President Barack Obama may be trying to reach out to Cuban leaders, but his 2010 budget suggests he isn't looking to cut the U.S. government's controversial broadcasts to the island anytime soon.

The president's budget proposal calls for about $32.5 million for the broadcasts, down only slightly from last year's budget of $34.8 million, though it does request some retooling: shorter, more frequent TV news segments and an all-news radio format.

That cuts down on the amount of commentary, which critics have said often fails to provide balanced perspectives and has been mismanaged.

The Miami-based Office of Cuba Broadcasting beams Radio and TV Marti into Cuba to help counter government-run media there. Supporters say the programs offer Cubans essential information about their country and about the U.S., which their own government refuses to provide.

Along with the U.S. embargo, the broadcasts have long been a thorny issue between the two countries but are strongly supported by many in the politically powerful Cuban exile community.

OCB spokeswoman Letitia King said the adjustments reflect the agency's efforts "to enlarge our audience in Cuba, to streamline certain aspects of programming and to respond to feedback from the limited audience research we are able to do."

Still, the budget proposal suggests Obama is moving cautiously in upending the country's decades-old policies toward Cuba - despite his recent decision to lift restrictions on Americans seeking to visit family members on the island.

The budget request for the Cuba broadcasts comes several months after a congressional report found that based on third-country phone surveys, the Marti stations had a limited audience among the island's 11 million residents. The Martis have received nearly half a billion dollars in recent decades.

The report was requested by Sen. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass, who has called for an end to the broadcasts.

Supporters of the broadcasts say such surveys fail to elicit honest responses from Cubans who fear speaking out against the government.

Dissidents in Cuba have repeatedly said TV Marti's signal is frequently jammed but have praised Radio Marti for its reach and influence. One exception to Radio Marti's all-news format will be Major League Baseball broadcasts, which King said would continue because of their popularity.

The total budget request for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all U.S. overseas broadcasts, including the Martis, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, was $745.5 million, up about 4 percent from 2009. The proposal adds money for Voice of America's broadcasts to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it establishes a Russian language Internet site for Central Asia, among other changes.

The Broadcasting Board is charged with promoting freedom and democracy and enhancing understanding through accurate, objective, and balanced news and other programming.

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