IN an ill-conceived effort to promote democracy in Cuba, the United States is about to make two policy mistakes that will waste taxpayers money, damage US trade relations, and possibly inadvertently strengthen Fidel Castro. The pending measures, which would continue Television Marti broadcasts to Cuba after the current test period ends and extend the trade embargo to US subsidiaries abroad via the Mack amendment, also illustrate the danger of permitting domestic politics to dictate foreign policy. The president's July 27 report to Congress on TV Marti has accurately described the major technical problems inherent in the enterprise. According to the document, Cuba has ``consistently and effectively jammed the TV Marti signal since broadcasts began,'' a survey by the US interests section in Havana found that only ``about 0.5 percent of the population in the viewing area'' could receive a ``good picture,'' and ``the International Frequency Registration Board has objected to the across-border broadcasts.'' The president also noted that Cuba has ``effectively prevented reception of Radio Marti's medium-wave AM signal'' in retaliation. Before the TV Marti tests began, Radio Marti was seldom jammed and had developed into one of the most useful sources of independent news for its Cuban listeners.
Despite this negative evaluation it appears likely that both Congress and the White House will support the full implementation of Television Marti at the end of August, when a five-month test period ends. This is primarily due to domestic political pressure from conservative Cuban Americans who play an important role in the Florida Republican party and have considerable influence with President Bush through family ties. It is also related to ambivalence on the part of key Democrats who are genuinely disgusted with Castro's recent behavior, and who hope an anti-Castro position will help them in upcoming reelection battles with conservative opponents. The American public is therefore about to spend $16 million a year to produce static on Cuban television screens.
If Television Marti were likely to strike a psychological blow against Castro, its technical defects might be overlooked. However, it has had the opposite effect. Castro has used the television initiative to whip up Cuban nationalism against ``US interference,'' and to claim that the successful jamming demonstrates Havana's technical superiority over Washington. In the eyes of the Cuban people, the jamming of Television Marti makes the US look silly and Castro masterful - not the message Washington intends to convey.
Equally counterproductive is the trade bill sponsored by Sen. Connie Mack (R) of Florida, which would prohibit US subsidiaries abroad - like their US parent companies - from trading with Cuba. An identical measure was rescinded in 1975 after US allies protested that it interfered with their sovereign right to define their own trade policy, and US subsidiaries complained they were being put in the awkward position of either breaking US law or the law of the country in which they were located. Washington also concluded that the regulation had little effect upon Cuba's ability to make purchases on the international market; Havana simply purchased from non-US firms, which were glad to have their competition administratively removed from the marketplace.
Allied resentment has not waned in the intervening 15 years, and indeed the Canadian and British governments, as well as the European Community, have sent strongly worded letters to Congress calling the measure ``completely unacceptable,'' an ``interference with ... sovereign authority to set ... trade policy'' and a ``violation of international law.'' They have also threatened to implement their own blocking regulations that would order US subsidiaries to comply with host-country law rather than US law.
The State Department, remembering the problems caused by the Mack amendment's predecessor prior to its rescinding in 1975 and worried about the reaction of allies, opposes the amendment. But the department has not received much support from a White House that is remarkably sensitive to the desires of conservative Cuban Americans.
Political symbolism rarely produces sound policy. Should Television Marti be continued and the Mack amendment passed, US trade relations and taxpayers will pay the price for Washington's current tendency to let domestic political considerations dictate Cuba policy, and Havana's government-controlled press will have ongoing material for cartoons ridiculing ``Uncle Sam.''