By Arshad Mohammed, Warren Strobel and David Adams
WASHINGTON/MIAMI (Reuters) - The White House has proposed turning Radio Marti, a U.S. government-controlled broadcaster created in part to undermine communist rule in Cuba, into a separate entity as Washington seeks rapprochement with Havana.
The proposal, buried in the federal budget released last month, was made some six weeks after the United States and Cuba agreed on Dec. 17 to embark on an effort to restore diplomatic ties and normalize relations after more than 50 years of enmity.
U.S. officials said the proposal was unrelated to the Cuba outreach and aimed at modernizing the broadcaster.
However, it has troubled critics of the thaw with Cuba, who view the proposed change as part of what they regard as the White House's abandonment of the fight against the authoritarian Castro government, a congressional aide said.
More details on the proposal will be unveiled on Wednesday, when the administration releases an additional budget document.
A legacy of the U.S. Cold War effort to reach out to people living under Communism and erode support for their rulers, Radio Marti, which beams radio, TV and online news to Cuba, has been accused of anti-Castro bias and is deeply resented by Havana.
Under the plan, the Miami-based broadcaster, which is part of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent federal agency, would become a separate entity along with unspecified parts of Voice of America's (VOA) Spanish-language service.
The entity would cease to be part of the U.S. government, though it would become a "grantee" receiving federal funding.
The proposal does not specify how it would be structured beyond that it would a "private, nonprofit organization."
The proposal would have to be approved by the Republican-led Congress, where some members critical of U.S.-Cuban detente say Washington appears to be giving up its leverage over Havana by easing sanctions without getting sufficient commitments to improve human and political rights in return.
"There is no connection between the proposal in the budget and the policy changes announced December 17 or the Cuban government's position with respect to Radio/TV Marti," said a senior U.S. official who declined to be identified, adding that the aim was "to make it more effective in carrying out its mission."
Asked for the reasoning behind the proposal, BBG spokeswoman Letitia King said the idea was to give the broadcaster greater flexibility on contracting, acquisitions and administration by removing it from regulations that govern the federal government.
King said that if the change were approved by Congress, the transition would take at least two years.
Philip Seib, a professor of journalism and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, said he doubted that Congress will go along with the proposed changes to Radio and TV Marti, despite what he called the stations’ ineffectiveness.
"I don’t know that Congress is going to be eager to do anything that changes that status quo," particularly since many Republicans oppose Obama’s opening to Cuba, said Seib, who has written extensively about international broadcasting.
(Reporting by David Adams, Arshad Mohammed and Warren Strobel; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by David Storey and Dan Grebler)