Friday, July 17, 2009

How Not to Engage in Broadcast Warfare: On TV Martí as Failure and (Limited) Success

In 1979, John Spicer Nichols explored the power of broadcasting as a weapon in warfare. The object of his study was the insurgency that would, after 1959, be known as the Cuban Revolution.

WHEN CUBAN REVOLUTIONARIES Fidel Castro and Ernesto (Ché) Guevara dis­cussed Guevara's proposal for establishing a rebel radio station, the guerrilla movement was faltering. Castro's troops were not properly fed and equipped and were desperately short of weapons. They had suffered a succession of mili­tary setbacks and could not break out of their rebel stronghold in the Sierra Maestra, a mountain range in the southeastern part of the island.

The purchase of even a small, dilapidated radio transmitter would be a major investment for the revolutionary forces. It would mean the continued shortage of arms and other basics. But Castro, having a keen sense for the value of propaganda, concluded that in the long run a radio station might be more critical to the success of the rebellion than guns and ammunition. Guevara was authorized to start the station.

. . . . But on February 24, 1958, most of the technical problems had been solved and, preceded by the tune of "Invaders' Hymn," Radio Rebelde officially went on the air. "This is Radio Rebelde, voice of the 26th of July Revolutionary Movement and the Rebel Army, transmitting from Free Territory of Cuba in the Sierra Maestra."

Before the end of the year, Radio Rebelde could be heard throughout the country and much of the Caribbean. Each night, eager to hear something not censored by the incumbent government of Fulgencio Batista, a growing number of Cubans would listen to a barrage of bulletins recounting the military vic­tories of the guerrillas, manifestos, and patriotic poems and music on Radio Rebelde. Castro frequently polished his oratorical skills over the air, and by the time the revolutionaries took control of the government, he had refined his abil­ity to the point that many analysts already considered him the greatest political speaker of this era. John Spicer Nichols, Cuba: Right Arm of Revolution, in Keeping the Flame: Media and Government in Latin America, 80 (Robert N. Pierce and John Spicer Nichols; New York: Hastings House., 1979).

This much of the story is well known. The Castro forces understood the importance of propaganda, the utility of modern transmissions vehicles for its distribution, and the sensibilities and needs of its market. They, like others before and after them, successfully used radio as an important weapon in their insurgency campaigns. And, indeed, Cuba after 1959 continued to refine and utilize media transmission for what became the very successful business of the projection of ideas on a global basis. They continue to be a world leader in the use of the media for the exportation of ideas. Many continue to consume the product of these Cuban efforts, especially in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Thirty years later, the same John Spicer Nichols could examine another great propaganda effort and pronounce it a failure. TV Marti Has Virtually No Audience, Violates International Law, And Should Be Closed, Prepared Statement Of John S. Nichols Before the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, Hearings on "TV Marti: A Station in Search of an Audience?', June 17, 2009. Professor Spicer's arguments are straightforward, and from the perspective of American abilities in the art of cultural and political warfare, a cautionary commentary on the failure of what can only be described as symbolic action in the service of half hearted efforts more notable for its form than its function. "

Television Marti has virtually no audience in Cuba and has little relevance in the Cuban domestic dialogue about the historic political transition currently taking place there. Although estimates vary, the total expenditures - including both direct federal appropriations and the substantial indirect costs -- to operate TV Marti since it went on the air in 1990 probably exceed a half-billion dollars of taxpayer money." Id.

Professor Nichols starts with the question considered by the House Committee: Does TV Martí have an audience on the Island? For that purpose he raises and answers two questions. The first is whether TV Martí can be seen on the Island.
The answer to the first sub-question is: the broadcast version of TV Marti is not seen in populated areas of Cuba and, almost without exception, has not been seen since the station went on the air in 1990. Despite the many expensive technological gimmicks funded by Congress, such moving from VHF to UHF broadcasts and changing the transmitter platform from an aerostat to an airplane, the basic physical properties of television broadcasting prevent TV Marti from delivering a signal to the island that is sufficiently strong to compete with Cuban counter-broadcasts and that can be seen by any significant number of people there. Id.
Professor Nichols emphasized: "Therefore, unless TV Marti figures out a way to overcome the laws of physics (which I seriously doubt), its broadcasts cannot be seen on the island without the compliance of the Cuban government - no matter how many more expensive technologies the U.S. government invests in." Id. At first blush it sounds silly to expend funds for television transmission that will failure to reach its audience. But perhaps it does. TV Martí, conventioanlly broadcast does reach a significant target audience--people living in the UNited States, many of whom might be interested in the existence of the programming, and even more of whom vote. . . in thre United States. Still, TV Martí does manage to reach Cuba. Professor Nichols explained:
the transmissions of the two satellite services that simultaneously carry TV Marti programming can be seen in Cuba. The coverage area of the Hispasat satellite blankets the entire island, and Direct TV local spot beam reaches the North Central portion of the country with a high-grade signal. In addition, there are an unknown - but probably significant - number of satellite dishes in use in Cuba. As a result, TV Marti - along with scores of other television programming options - is easily available to those who are connected to these bootleg satellite reception networks. Although it is much easier to jam a satellite circuit than an over-the-air broadcast signal, to do the former would be a serious violation of international telecommunication regulations and, as a result, Cuba has not hindered the satellite transmission of TV Marti. Id.
The question, then, beyond the obvious one of service delivery, is on meeting market needs, at least those of the people in Cuba potentially interested in listening to the American position on those matters transmitted in TV Martí. Here again, Professor Nichols suggests, the American effort falls far short of the success of ther far more primitive efforts of the Cuban insurgents in the 1950s.
Of those Cubans who can view U.S. programming via an illegal satellite dish connection, how many choose TV Marti over the wealth of programming options, including Spanish-language content from Miami commercial stations and other countries in the region? While it is nearly impossible to precisely quantify the number, the answer to the question is that the audience of the satellite version of TV Marti is very small. Surveys by both the U.S. and Cuban governments, in-country reporting by foreign journalists, and anecdotal evidence all indicate that the overwhelming majority of Cubans with access to satellite dish television strongly prefer other - primarily entertainment - programming. My Cuban friends, for example, regularly watch House and CSI-Miami. Id.

There is substantial irony in this conclusion. American television penetration of the Island is strong. The power of American broadcasting may be significant. But those efforts are most successful when exercised by the commercial sectors--including its informational arm, than by government supported programs. But of course, this should come as no surprise to those who have sought to support public involvement in television through subsidies to efforts like PBS. And indeed, I would suspect that the cultural, and values laden programming of the commercial stations available not only from the United States but also from Latin America might pose a greater risk to the project of ideology culture building in Cuba than the programming available through the fertile imaginings of TV Martí--and available at substantially negligible cost to the state.

But the irony is compounded, suggests Professor Nichols, because the TV Martí project appears to violate the substantive norms of the International Telecommunications Convention very treaty system the United States helped put in place to prevent the uncontrolled use of TV aggression of the type it now indulges through TV Martí. "The very provisions that TV Marti flouts were adopted as international law in the late 1940s at the insistence of the United States - and over the stiff opposition of the Soviet Union - because they not only ensure the most efficient use of the international airwaves for the benefit of all countries but also are critical in protecting the U.S. domestic broadcast system from external interference." Id. On the other hand, these suggestions of violation of "law" do not necessarily capture the complications flowing from the way in which international law is understood and incorporated into the American legal order, at least as "law." Generally treaties do not create law in the United States unless they are deemed to be "self-executing. Most treaties tend not to be self-executing, either because they explicitly so state or because under principles of American jurisprudence, they do not meet the standards for treatment as self-executing instruments. Such treaty obligations become "law" within the United States only when their provisions are transposed into the domestic legal order--through the passage of appropiate legislation or the actions and acquiescence of federal officials with the constitutional authority to act. But, transposition into domestically binding law does not produce a special status for international law obligations. Instead, international law domestically enacted has no higher status as law than ordinary statute, at least as a general matter. As a consequence, treaty obligations, and other aspects of international law is binding in the United States only to the same extent that other federal law is binding. Such law is always subject to further modification and repeal by subsequently passed legislation. To the extent that such subsequently passed legislation effectively breaches the understanding of the state parties ot international agreements, that becomes a matter between states, but at least within the United States, does not affect the status of otherwise validly passed legislation. Violations of international law, when directly connected to constitutionally valid enactment of subsequent inconsist legislation, then, constitutes no violation of law domestically and from the internal perspective of the United States, is best understood as political rather than legal flouting. of obligations. See Medellin v. Texas, 552 U.S. -- (March 25, 2008).

As such, the creation and maintenance of TV Martí, as a valid exercise of federal constitutional authority is perfectly valid as "law" within the United States, even if it has the effect of substantially modifying (or perhaps even undoing) the internal effect prior provisions, including those derived from the International Telecommunications Convention. That the effect might be to breach the obligations of the United States under this Convention is, then, a political matter between the United States and the other state parties to that Convention. Those states may argue a breach of international law, as such. But that breach is between the United States and the other parties ot the Convention, and can be effectively dealt with only by recourse to the remedial provisions of that Convention, or through resort to the usual arsenal of techniques available to manage the relations between states. Those who would seek a "higher" place for the domestic effect of international law might find this distressing, and seek to change it. But there is no "law" that an American court can enforce in those circumstances, at leats within the United States. That, for the the moment, at least, that is effectively the way the United States operates.

However, the irony becomes perverse when Professor Nichols must look to the Cuban government to supply him with information about Radio Martí that the American government refused to supply.
I have filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests for relevant unclassified documents, but almost all of those requests have been ignored or inappropriately denied. It is equally ironic that most of the three-way correspondence among the United States, Cuba, and the International Telecommunication Union was supplied to me by Cuban officials. (I wish to acknowledge in particular the cooperation of Carlos Martinez Albuerne, the director of the Cuban counterpart to the Federal Communications Commission, for releasing considerable documentary evidence to me. Id.
And thus two very different models of the us eof technology for th eprojection of propaganda and the influencing of cultural or nornative beliefs, leading to political action. On the one hand, the success of the Cuban insurgents in the 1950s,and American commercial television today. On the other hand, the expensive oddity of TV Martí.

And yet, there is something wrong with this analysis. I am not sure that TV Martí is a failure , even on its own terms. It is possible to think about the success of TV Martí from a different perspective when one looks to the operations of TV Martí rather than its self proaganda. If one considers TV Martí as an effort to influence the American population by appearing to influence the Cuban population on the Island, it might then be possible to argue that its efforts are a success. It may also be a way to aid the Cuban community in the United States in the development of a unified and coherent ideological stance to be deployed, at some point, against the current government in Cuba. Thus, as an internal device, TV Martí may well serve important goals, but they are hardly the goals for which the enterprise was said to have been funded. TV Martí, like Radio Rebelde, may have a limited range, but each appears to have successfully tuned in successfully to a limited political market segment. The only trouble with TV Martí is that the real object of its broadcast activities may be less obvious.

All of this may be coming to an end. It has been rumored that TV Martí may fall victim to the change in Administration. Phil Peters, TV Martí Funds Cut, The Cuban Triangle, July 9, 2009. "The Senate committee also struck $15 million for the U.S. television service it beams into Cuba, known as TV Marti, after Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan said the signal was jammed by the Communist government so no one there could see it." Jeremy Pelofsky and Susan Cornwell, U.S. House backs $48.8 billion foreign aid funding bill, The Washington Post, July 9, 2009. In the end, as Fidel Castro himself has taught, a well conceived and executed program of directed propaganda, used to develop and project a coherent ideological position in a way that appeals to a targeted audience, can be instrumental in political struggles. That is a lesson the Americans thought they had learned after 1945. But apparently not well enough with TV Martí. Of course, Radio Martí and Radio Martí on twitter may be another story. Yet even here, the direct target appears to be the population of Florida, rather then the people of Cuba. Even Cuban dissidents complain that the content of the programs of these efforts appear to serve the local political agendas of South Florida rather than the purported goal of effecting political dialogue within Cuba. See, Juan Carlos Chavez, Disidentes cubanos piden cambios de programación en Radio Martí, El Nuevo Herald, Jan. 16, 2009 (""Nosotros esperamos que se haga un análisis de todo lo que ha sucedido, porque la programación es tan mala y tan poco interesante para el pueblo cubano que nadie la escucha'', afirmó Vladimiro Roca, portavoz de la agrupación durante una entrevista telefónica con El Nuevo Herald. Roca enfatizó que la reclamación tocó la puerta al más alto nivel en Washington, debido a que la emisora radial está más en sintonía con las políticas locales del exilio en Miami, 'lo que ocasiona que el cubano de a pie no tenga motivación ni interés''." Id.). As a weapon against the current Cuban state apparatus, the TV Martí efforts might be a failure. It is substantially irrelevant, except for its power to sid the Cuban state in its own efforts to convince global opinion of American overreaching. To that extent it is unfortunate that the American government insists on funding propaganda efforts turned against it. Yet, as a tool for the disciplining of the American political community and the development of its position as against the current Cuban state apparatus, it appears to have achieved a measure of success.

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