Cuba has one of the world’s most restrictive media environments; it habitually ranks in the bottom ten on the Freedom of the Press Index as one of the ten worst countries in the world for journalists and bloggers. The U.S. government’s Miami-based Radio and TV Martí broadcasters works tirelessly to get around Havana’s censorship, and come up with novel ways to disseminate information on the island. Carlos Garcia-Perez, who runs the operation, attended this week’s Forum 2000 conference in Prague and on a visit to Radio Prague’s studios he spoke to our editor-in-chief Miroslav Krupička, who chaired one of the Forum 2000 panels on the role of the radio in inspiring democratic changes. Mr. Garcia Perez began by sharing his impressions of this year’s Forum 2000.
“ I think it was a great conference, I really enjoyed it. I went to a lot of different panels. Some of which had nothing to do with Latin America but with the transitions in Eastern Europe, for example. I was very pleased to see the Cuban dissidents and activists that were here in Prague. It was a joy to observe their intellect, clarity of thoughts and passion. I’m dealing with Cuba in every sense of my life now, and it gives me a great sense of hope- a hope which I’ve always had, actually. But this really raises my hope that there are really some good things happening on the island.”
You actively participated in the panel on radio and democracy. What would be your reflections on democracy? Were there any inspirations for you?
“Absolutely. Some of the Cuban activists were there and participated. That’s the primary reason why we exist. To listen to our target audience, to talk about how the change would benefit them- and that’s humbling. Because we can’t do research in Cuba, that’s the best kind of research that we can have. I actually found myself a lot of the time taking notes (laughs). It was educational for me, and it was also inspirational for me. That’s exactly the sort of thing we try to broadcast on radio Martí.”
Let’s talk about radio and TV Martí for a short while. It was interesting listening to you about the methods you use to disseminate your message over to Cuba. Could you briefly name and describe your methods?
“We are a multi media operation. You cannot split up radio, TV and the internet anymore- and this is the genesis of the whole thing. Everybody shares the operation these days. Why is that? Well, there are two primary reasons. Firstly, it’s the most efficient way of carrying on our operation today, and, as you know, the internet is a big player. You (Radio Prague) play a big role on the internet now, so internet and social media has changed the spectrum of how information is disseminating and the availability of information. Secondly, it is the attempt to jam us by the Cuban government. And we go from the most primitive way of distributing information, which is through flash drives and DVDs on the island, where we put our radio and TV content to satellite. In between those, we have an AM station, we have our own 1180 signal, but we buy time from commercial stations in Miami- that’s in a test period- but we do that because we know it reaches the island, and we are getting great feedback from the island on these. We are doing short wave and we are also testing FM. We know the access to internet is a big component of distribution- although we know access to the internet on the island is very limited. The paper flash drive is a very big component now on our distribution.”
How does it work? You send it to Cuba and people put it in their computers and what happens then?
“You basically download information that’s in the flash drive. You load it up with information- it could be programs, or, for example, the one that you are holding now for the audience is called Piramideo, which is a social text network that we have created for Cubans on the island. So basically it’s group messaging. You register your cell phone on piramideo through the website and you can put as many Cuban cell phone numbers of your friends as you wish and for the price of one text we send a text message to all the people in your group. But the way you do it is that you download it to your computer, you break it off from the business card, you put it into your computer and download the information, and that’s it.”
Is this form of communication through cell phones and internet detectable from the Cuban authorities?
“I think everything is detectable by the authorities. It’s a matter of the degree that they can chase all these things, and that’s our strategy. Our strategy is to have a lot of initiatives that we know people on the island are using and consuming. So if you want to chase us with what you’re doing, then fasten your seatbelt and put on a helmet, because we are creating new things every 3 months. For example, we have something very important coming up now which is in the development stages.”
You mean a new device or channel how to get to Cuba?
“We were thinking of new ways of how to deliver the radio and TV Marti content to Cuba, which has become more relevant than ever, because we have always had volunteer independent journalists on the island collaborating for Martí. But now we have paid journalists, so these are professional journalists. And I’m not taking anything away from the independent journalists that have collaborated with Martí; they continue to be- and will continue to be- an important source of information for Martí. But we are also creating the profession of journalism on the island. There are a lot of organisations training journalists on the island, but once they are trained, they don’t have a job. So we’re proving employment on the island.”
From time to time your organisation comes under criticism that you are not as efficient as you could be that you don’t cover the whole of the Cuba population and so on. Is there any way to measure the audience, how would you reply to that? Is the audience rather declining or growing?
“Well, as you know from the panel that you and I participated in, it is very clear that our audience is growing. That’s why the government is involved in this business. Commercial station cannot operate on the island: there’s no free press, nobody can walk around with a notepad taking notes to see what the reach of Martí is. So the Martí need to create that space for the free flow of information on the island. From the calls we get on the island, we know we have a positive influence on the island. So there’s no way of measuring the impact other than anecdotal evidence. But I’ll give you an example. We did a giveaway of 6 motorcycles on January 6th 2011. The 6th in the Catholic religion is the Epiphany, or the three king’s day. These 6 motorcycles were a gift from Cuban exiles. We promoted the giveaway for a week and a half before January 6th. On the day of the giveaway there was a big show, probably like what you’ve done here many times, so everybody knew we were going to do this. We had over 3000 participants- a huge number, considering the conditions in Cuba. The day of the program, we had to do away with our pre-production plans because we were getting so many phone calls from Cuba. So, if the authorities in Cuba really wanted to jam us, they would have done it. In terms of the criticism, the BBG, which is the umbrella under which Martí operates, (which is voice of America RFE/RL, which based here in Prague) this is not different than anything we do around the world.
Of course we are criticised, because the Cuban government doesn’t like us very much. If it was a commercial operation in a free country, we would, of course, be spending less money. But we are fighting now to create the free flow of information and to be able to educate the people in Cuba against the will of the government, so it’s just a moral obligation.”
And finally, do you see any progress in Cuba in terms of the government liberalising ways of life?
“Well, I think what you and I witnessed in these past two days with having Cuban activists here is very telling. There’s certainly liberalisation going on on the island. The reasons for it…we could be here for three hours. But the bottom line in my mind is the following: There’s a civil society growing on the island that is very strong, that the fundamentals of it are very strong, that they’re civil, respectful among each other and with the people that do not agree with their thoughts. And I truly believe, and I have more hope especially after what I’ve seen here, that the train has left the station a long time ago and the activists and people in Cuba have lost their fear and they are demanding changes from the government, and the government has no option other than to do that, because they’re going to lose control.”