Should the United States spend $17.7 million on a new government radio station in Florida to tell the Cubans what Washington wants them to hear? The Voice of America ought to be able to handle the job, especially with its new emphasis on editorial opinion as well as information. Or so a budget-minded Congress might reason. But a bill authorizing such a station is already up for floor action in the House of Representatives.
The $17.7 million is only for two years, with estimates of as much as $30 million a year for future operations. So far, Mr. Reagan has not made a persuasive case for benefits equal to such costs. It would seem that Congress ought to hold off at least until his special presidential commission on the subject submits its final report which is due in October.
Fortunately, the Senate has been moving slower on Radio Free Cuba or Radio Marti, as the station has been dubbed in the name of a 19th-century Cuban patriot. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has held hearings but not reached conclusions. It has before it a study requested from the Congressional Research Service, whose net effect has been taken as negative.
Here are some of the questions requiring congressional scrutiny:
* What is the purpose of such a station? The administration speaks of telling Cubans the truth about their country. There seems to be a generalized intention to undermine Cuban leader Castro. But will a radio station do what 20 years of economic boycott have failed to do? Such provocation would hardly foster the diplomatic easing of US-Cuban relations that has appeared somewhere on the horizon in recent months.
* Is there a receptive audience? Cubans already can receive plenty of broadcasts from the US. Why would they turn to a government-labeled station? A proposed House amendment would limit Radio Marti to short-wave frequencies. How many Cubans have short-wave radios?
* What response from listeners is wanted? Should the broadcasts make Cubans dissatisfied with their lot and seek to emigrate to the US? The welcome mat is hardly out. Are the broadcasts supposed to encourage revolt? Recall the US experience with the Hungarian revolt.
* What results might be expected for US broadcasters? Castro has threatened to use powerful Cuban stations to jam Radio Marti. At present the designated spot on the dial for it would be 1040, the same as for President Reagan's old Des Moines sportscasting station, WHO. It would be bad enough for this station to be jammed, with its importance to the emergency broadcast network and to the farmers of the Midwest. But jamming spillover to 1030 and 1050 could affect more than 200 other stations in the US.
No wonder there is a proposed House amendment to give decisions on matters such as frequency to the Federal Communications Commission. Then at least the interests of US broadcasting could be considered. Radio Marti could be pegged at the extreme ends of the broadcast band beyond the spectrum of commercial broadcasters.
Presumably Castro could still retaliate on commercial frequencies. The US, of course, should not make its decisions on the basis of Cuban intimidation. Nevertheless, communications are too important to become political playthings. The door needs to be kept open to negotiated settlement of interference problems , whether deliberate or nondeliberate.
Perhaps the final question is: Does Mr. Reagan really want to spend money in this manner when it could be so much more persuasive in other ways - such as showing the Cubans how the US can aid Caribbean nations practically rather than rhetorically.