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Bipartisan group asks Office of Cuba Broadcasting to rescind layoffs

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.)
Greg Nash
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) addresses reporters after a closed-door House Republican conference meeting on Tuesday, July 19, 2022.

A bipartisan congressional group on Tuesday called on the head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) to revisit its plans to restructure its Cuban news agency.

The Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), the parent agency of Radio and Televisión Martí, announced last month it would undergo a restructuring process, with likely layoffs to come in November.

In a letter to USAGM Acting CEO Kelu Chao and OCB Director Sylvia Rosabal, the lawmakers questioned the motivation for the layoffs.

“We believe that USAGM has failed to justify to Congress as to how these changes will further OCB’s mission to support the right of the Cuban people to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas,” wrote the lawmakers, led by Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.).

“In light of last year’s unprecedented and historic protests across Cuba, and within all applicable rules and regulations, we request that you reconsider any plans to implement this reduction in force (RIF),” they added.

Laurie Moy, USAGM director of public affairs said in a statement that the additional reductions are required, despite recent years of cutting costs.

“USAGM and OCB leadership continue to explore all options for cost reductions, including personnel reductions, to operate within current funding levels without compromising the ability to achieve its mission; any reduction in force comes as a last resort,” she said, adding that RIF notices had not been issued and that the agency was working with the Office of Personnel Management to “minimize the impact on the workforce.”

Joining Díaz-Balart were Democratic Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) and Albio Sires (N.J.), Republican Reps. María Elvira Salazar (Fla.), Carlos Gimenez (Fla.), and Nicole Malliotakis (N.Y.) and Florida GOP Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.

The coalition, which includes Congress’s most prominent Cuban-American voices as well as top Florida legislators, recalled a similar layoff process at OCB in 2009, when 16 employees were fired under the guise of an RIF.

“We are also alarmed by the inclusion of several employees on a preliminary RIF list, particularly in light of the illegal process that occurred during the 2009 RIF at OCB. For example, we understand that six employees currently listed were also on the 2009 RIF list,” wrote the lawmakers. 

The 2009 firings led to years of litigation after which several employees were reinstated amid accusations that USAGM, then known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, had fired the employees for political reasons.

The lawmakers questioned whether USAGM is being straightforward in its reasons for implementing the cuts, given that the federal budget for fiscal 2023 is still being negotiated.

Although USAGM is based in Washington, a majority of OCB workers are based in Miami.

From Miami, Radio and Televisión Martí are tasked with beaming accurate journalism into Cuba, a country with severe restrictions on freedom of the press.

The broadcasting agency, once seen as a vestige of the Cold War, has taken renewed importance amid U.S. support of Cuban protesters and dissidents.

“It is unacceptable that the Administration is laying off nearly one third of the staff at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting at a time when we need them the most,” said Salazar in a statement.

Still, OCB has been shrinking over the years, while the rest of USAGM, which operates services like Voice of America, has maintained flat or increasing budgetary requests.

“In terms of funding, Congress has yet to receive an adequate explanation as to why USAGM has repeatedly requested drastic cuts of more than 50% to OCB starting in FY2019, and why it continues to do so despite requesting static funding or increases to the rest of its entities. The request for a more than 50% reduction to OCB originated from within USAGM, whose management would have known how devastating these cuts would be,” wrote the lawmakers.

And the lawmakers were miffed over what they saw as USAGM telling two stories about the need for cuts: On one hand, blaming cuts on a necessary “reorganization” at OCB, on the other, blaming congressional budget cuts for the reorganization.

“Despite multiple requests, we have yet to receive clarity on whether the RIF at OCB was initiated pursuant to budgetary constraints, or pursuant to ‘reorganization,'” wrote the lawmakers.

According to the letter, the American Federation of Government Employees – the union that represents USAGM employees – was told the layoffs were justified because of budget constraints, despite the fact that Congress provided USAGM the authority to transfer funds to OCB in fiscal 2021 and fiscal 2022.

“Even though Congress has not yet passed a FY2023 funding bill, Congress still retains the prerogative to provide transfer authorities to OCB for FY2023. For USAGM to base such drastic actions on assumed budget levels, prior to Congressional action, is premature,” wrote the lawmakers.

Updated 6:13 p.m.

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