A Television Show Could Put Obama's Diplomatic Achievement With Cuba at Risk

A civil servant from TV Martí walks into a bar, orders 12 shots, and starts drinking them as fast as he can.

The bartender interrupts him to ask, "Why on Earth are you drinking so fast?"

The guy says, "You'd be drinking fast, too, if you had what I have."

The bartender asks, "What do you have?"

The Martí man replies, "75 cents."*

Okay, that was a joke.

But, when Tracey Eaton reported on his blog, Along the Malecón, that our government is spending "U.S. tax dollars for parodies of Cuban politicians," he was dead serious.

Tracey's item pointed to a solicitation from the Broadcasting Board of Governors posted on an e-government website at the end of August. This agency is home to Voice of America and, importantly for our story, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting -- or OCB -- which operates Radio and TV Martí.

Under the memorable title "OCBSatire," the Office of Cuba Broadcasting announced that it has "a requirement for exclusive, non-transferrable rights for a Cuban satirical variety and comedy sketch show for inclusion in its programming," with proposals due September 14.

While OCB welcomed submissions from Cuba and elsewhere, they were clearly not looking for just any kind of comedy to entertain its Cuban audience.

"These skits must be able to parody public figures, politicians, government officials, entertainers, as well as recognizable members of Cuban civil society groups who are active in the political and civil sphere and widely known throughout the Island."

And when they used the word "requirement," this solicitation was about as specific in detailing how Cuba's leaders will be mocked as the EPA is in writing rules to control air pollution.

Ten scripts for ten shows. Scripts no longer than thirty minutes in length. "Each skit should ideally be comprised of 3 segments with accompanying commercial breaks followed by a formal close."

But, here's the best requirement. "These parodies must be uniquely funny, ironic, satirical and entertaining to a wide cross-section of the Cuban population."

Who in the U.S. government is going to decide that? My organization wrote the contracting officers at the BBG and asked "who will determine which proposal is selected?" We never heard back.

If the BBG lacks in-house capacity to decide what's "uniquely funny," maybe they'll get advice from the team that put up a prime time comedy show on Radio Martí that featured a cast whose actors were mostly dead, as The New York Times reported in 1985, by the time the program aired. Or maybe they'll get help from the producers of "The Chief's Office," described by the Associated Press as "a satire on the life behind the scenes in the fictional office of a military leader with an extraordinary resemblance to Fidel Castro."

No need to sound "spoiler alert" before saying these previous attempts at satire -- not to mention other not-so-hilarious episodes featuring an invasion, acts of terror, exploding cigars and poison-secreting wet suits -- have been completely ineffective at upending Cuba's government.

As bad as this all sounds, my complaints about OCB satire go deeper.

First, if the contract goes to Cubans applying from the island, they risk running afoul of Cuban law. One section of Law 88 forbids collaboration "in any way with foreign radio or television stations, newspapers, magazines or other mass media with the purpose of ... destabilizing the country and destroying the socialist state," and was written with Radio and TV Martí in mind. A Cuban getting this contract would be exposed to the kind of legal jeopardy that ensnared the former USAID subcontractor, Alan Gross.

Second, there are government loyalists in Cuba, as Michael Bustamante described them in his article for Foreign Affairs, "A Cuban Conundrum," who passionately believe that President Raúl Castro is making a mistake in his diplomacy with the United States, and think our "opening" of doors to more travel and trade is simply regime change by another name.

His article identifies what concerns Cuban hardliners most: the "deleterious impact" of U.S. media and U.S. offers to expand Cubans' access to the Internet for free. Jokey Cuba Broadcasting Office regime change sitcoms will play right into their fears.

Third, when ABC News asked Susan Rice, the president's National Security Advisor, why Radio and TV Martí were still pumping out anti-Castro government articles even after the President said "we're no longer in the business of regime change," Ambassador Rice responded "We will continue to say and do what we think is appropriate to advance our interests in human rights and democracy in Cuba... we're not going to change just because the Cuban government may wish that we did otherwise." So, no one can say the Office of Cuba Broadcasting went rogue on this. The Administration owns it.

Fourth, as Bill LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh remind us in their invaluable book "Back Channel," activities by Radio and TV Martí have previously been used by Cuba to bring hoped-for diplomatic progress to a dead-end conclusion.

This matters. Joshua Hersh pointed out this summer in his excellent review of the Alan Gross case that Cuba will inevitably raise objections to the regime change programs that threaten its sovereignty in the negotiations to normalize relations -- which resumed in Havana on September 11th.

Once the Cuban delegation made its opening remarks, I doubt U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Lee responded with "Stop me if you've heard this one: 'Two Cuban brothers dressed in army fatigues drop into a bar for a drink.'"

It would be nice if someone in the White House and State Department twisted the money spigot off on this dumb waste of taxpayer money before BBG awards this contract and puts the larger purposes of President Obama's diplomatic achievement with Cuba at risk.

*Note to readers: Insiders know that the Office of Cuba Broadcasting is "scraping by" with an annual budget of about $30 million. No one from OCB walked into a bar with just 75 cents. It was a joke.