CubaNews / November 2002
By Larry Luxner
The U.S. government has distributed nearly 10,000 shortwave radios throughout Cuba, as part of a State Department initiative that began about a year ago.
A State Department official told CubaNews that the multiband radios are shipped to Havana by freight-forwarding services and other unspecified methods.
“We work through the Cuban opposition, human-rights monitoring groups and the dissident community,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. “We give these radios only to people who want them. We don’t want to give anything to anyone who will feel uncomfortable.”
The Chinese-made radios cost under $40 each, including a rechargeable battery pack and a recharger. Because they pick up shortwave transmissions, Cubans can use them to tune into Radio Martí, a U.S. anti-Castro station whose AM broadcasts are often jammed by the Cuban government.
But the official denies that the free radios are programmed in advance to receive only Radio Martí. “That’s just Cuban propaganda,” he told CubaNews. “They’re not programmed to anything. It’s just a radio.”
So far, the initiative has cost U.S. taxpayers around $400,000, the official said, with money coming from “a variety of funding sources including public diplomacy funds and Section 109 funds.”
Earlier this year, Washington’s shortwave radio giveaway sparked anger among Cuban officials, who threatened to suspend bilateral immigration talks and close the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
Castro himself angrily condemned the “smuggling of goods in diplomatic pouches” and the policies of Washington’s former top diplomat in Cuba, Vicki Huddleston, who would personally hand out radios to passersby on the streets of Havana, only to learn that the radios would be quickly confiscated by security police once she was out of sight.
While the official agrees that Huddleston’s replacement, James Cason, has taken a more low-key approach on the issue, he told CubaNews that the State Department will likely continue to give out shortwave radios to Cubans who ask for them.
“Our belief is that there’s a fledgling civil society developing there. It’s a tough road, and the Cuban regime opposes it every step of the way. We’re trying to plug into those civil society elements, and it’s through them that we reach out,” he said. “In that context, we’re just trying to provide better information to the Cuban people.”