US and Cuba set to re-establish diplomatic relations: the shortwave radio listener perspective

Sunday, December 21, 2014
Viva Cuba by Alain Bertrand
On December 17, US President Barack Obama announced a "new chapter" in US relations with Cuba with a move to re-establish diplomatic and economic ties between the two former Cold War adversaries. Though much has already been written about this elsewhere, I would like to share my perspective of this event with a few shortwave recordings I made the following morning.

Readers of my blog and Twitter feed know that I'm big fan of Cuban radio. However, because this was a White House announcement, I wanted to hear the official US perspective on this historic event. I tuned into the Voice of America broadcast, directed at Africa from the Vatican (6080 kHz on 18/12/2014 at 0259 UTC):

The style and the delivery of this news bulletin combined with the magnitude of the events being mentioned reminded me of catching the tail end of Cold War shortwave broadcasts as a small child in the late 1980s. Another news item that stood out for me was the unilateral declaration of ceasefire by Colombia's FARC guerrilla group. It left me wondering whether this was somehow tied to the US-Cuba announcement, as negotiations between the rebels and Colombia's government have now been taking place in Havana for quite some time.

Shortly before that, though, I tuned into Radio Martí, the clandestine broadcaster funded by the United States government that transmits American propaganda newscasts and programmes in Spanish to Cuba (check out my earlier post for a quick profile of this station). Although I would not normally turn to them for any in-depth analysis (or to any clandestine station for that matter), I was very curious to hear how they would present this tectonic shift in the American policy towards the island nation, given how scathing they normally are of the Cuban regime as a whole. Below is my recording of Martí's news bulletin transmitted from their Greenville transmitter in North Carolina (7365 kHz on 18/12/2014 at 0059 UTC)

Unsurprisingly, the news of the re-establishing of diplomatic relations was quickly followed by criticism of Obama by senators Menendez and Rubio, who said that it was too bold a move and that consultation with the US Congress would be necessary before any real progress could be made. However, it is unlikely that many Cubans would have heard their complaints, as my friend Thomas Witherspoon at tells me that the Cuban jamming of Martí's signal is so strong that he can barely copy it at his home in South Carolina. It is somewhat ironic, then, that I can receive it better here in London.

On the other hand, my attempts to record Radio Habana Cuba that night were far less successful. Propagation was really weak on the 49 meter band, which, combined with a number of sources of local interference made it very difficult to tune into either the Spanish broadcast on 6060 kHz or the English one on 6000 kHz. The speech was intelligible but the reception conditions certainly didn't help to make nice recordings. I was briefly lucky around 0325-0335 UTC on the latter frequency and was even able to record their half-hour news bulletin (which unfortunately was condensed and didn't cover all the key events of the day), but by its end, the local noise source had returned with a vengeance. Still, at least I was able to record some nice music!

Luckily, Thomas at made a full one hour recording of that broadcast in superb audio quality. I embed it below with his kind permission (6000 kHz on 18/12/2014 at 0300 UTC).

Predictably, the main focus of the news was on the release on the remaining three of the Cuban Five and less on the re-establishing of relations itself. However, the broadcast also contained the English translation of Raul Castro's speech that coincided with Barack Obama's announcement. Gerwyn Jones's commentary on the Islamic State (20 minutes into the program) was also noteworthy. And here's a bit of trivia: the music at the start of the recording is Bailando Suiza by Harold Lopez-Nussa Trio and David Sanchez. All in all, it was definitely one of the more exciting days to listen to shortwave radio.

About the author

This blog is written by a shortwave radio enthusiast based in London, UK. You can follow him on Twitter at @LondonShortwave