THE United States is trying to drop television programs onto Cuba from a blimp two miles above the Florida Keys. The United States Information Agency proclaims the right of the Cuban people to receive TV news and entertainment uncensored by Fidel Castro's dictatorial regime. But Havana calls TV Mart'i tele-aggression. Castro has successfully jammed the test programming that began last week, and threatens to retaliate.
Televisi'on Marti is a cousin of Radio Mart'i, set up by USIA five years ago to beam radio programs into Cuba, just as the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe broadcast around the world. After early resistance from critics who feared that Cuban exiles would use it to propagandize, Radio Mart'i has won respect for its objective programming in conformity with VOA standards. Cuba has not acted on threats to jam the radio transmissions.
So why the furor over TV Mart'i - not only in Cuba but also in the US?
Havana no doubt is concerned about the inherent power of television images (TV has fanned the flames of freedom in Eastern Europe). Also, Cuba insists that the TV transmissions violate international law. Unlike short-wave radio broadcasts on international frequencies, TV signals are carried on frequencies reserved for individual countries. USIA counters that its signal on Havana's channel 13 doesn't interfere with a frequency in use.
Some Americans also have doubts about TV Mart'i. Castro has the ability to disrupt radio transmissions in the South, which has US broadcasters alarmed. Furthermore, the kickoff of TV Mart'i coincides with worrisome signs that the Mart'i enterprise is becoming a political battleground for Cuban exile groups. Ernesto Betancourt, the respected director of Radio Mart'i, recently resigned, claiming that the Cuban-American National Foundation is attempting to manipulate Mart'i.
We believe in the free flow of ideas and information among peoples, especially to those who, like the Cubans, are locked in totalitarian darkness. But TV Mart'i is a misguided effort if it's found to put the US on the wrong side of international law, hurts US broadcasters, impairs the credibility of Radio Mart'i - and can be easily jammed, anyway.