Jammin' In Havana

How did two Miami radio stations end up broadcasting Radio Marti programs to listeners in Cuba? Hint: It's curious, but it's classified.

Monday, November 9 was the first day of an unprecedented practice in the 50-year history of Voice of America (VOA), the government agency born of the Cold War to broadcast U.S. news and culture to countries with limited freedom of expression. Between 10:00 and 11:00 p.m. on that Monday last month, listeners tuning in to two popular Miami Spanish-language AM radio stations heard Las Noticias Como Son (The News As It Is), accompanied by a detailed report on "La Democracia: La Primera Opcion." During brief station breaks, listeners might have been surprised to learn they'd picked up Radio Marti, the VOA's broadcast to Cuba.

Though widely unheralded, it was the first time VOA had leased time on commercial radio stations anywhere in the world. The idea was to try to circumvent the Castro government's assiduous jamming of Radio Marti, whose transmitter is located on Marathon Key. The supplemental broadcasts ended this past Friday, December 11, after a 25-day experimental run. They could resume on a permanent basis, they could be changed to different stations, or they could be dropped altogether, according to Antonio Navarro, director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting in Washington, D.C. Navarro insists Radio Marti will scrap the strategy if this test period proves to have been ineffective. But the project was pursued in the first place despite technical studies earlier this year that concluded U.S. radio reception on the island was "inadequate."

The U.S. government is prohibited by law from beaming its VOA programs to its own citizens, but there are exceptions written into the 1983 law creating Radio Marti. Broadcasting from domestic U.S. stations is allowed when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) determines the jamming of Radio Marti's 1180-AM frequency has increased by 25 percent over the jamming levels measured in 1983. (Those measurements were taken before the advent of Radio Marti, but the VOA had been broadcasting to Cuba on the 1180-AM frequency ever since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.)

Radio Marti officials assert it's their responsibility to pursue broadcasting on alternative frequencies to counter Castro's jamming efforts. But little is taken at face value in the edgy, passionate political ambiance of Miami's Cuban exile community, and many here pronounce Radio Marti's arrangement with the two stations not an anti-communist outreach but an inward-turned exile power play. These accusations come amid other controversies surrounding Radio Marti. In response to a request from the General Accounting Office -- Congress's investigative arm -- the VOA recently conducted an investigation of allegations of bias in Radio Marti's news coverage. (VOA will establish an independent review board as a result.) In addition, the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting, charged with ensuring the effectiveness of Radio Marti and its counterpart, TV Marti, also recently has called for all broadcast operations to be moved from Washington to Miami. That, according to some observers, would tie the government outlets ever more closely to Miami's volatile exile politics.

The nine-member advisory board, by most accounts, was the sustaining force behind Radio Marti's decision to lease air time on two of Miami's most popular Spanish-language radio stations: WQBA (La Cubanisima) and WAQI (Radio Mambi). Chairman of that board is the powerful Jorge Mas Canosa, also head of the Cuban American National Foundation. Mas, who didn't return phone calls seeking comment for this story, is a potent presence on Miami airwaves through his and his supporters' frequent appearances on radio talk shows. He further maintains a high profile through the Foundation's shortwave radio station, La Voz de la Fundacion, and is considered the most politically influential Cuban American in the nation.

The former director of Radio Marti, Ernesto Betancourt, resigned in 1990, alleging that Mas forced him out because he refused to acquiesce to Cuban American National Foundation pressure to give disproportionate voice to Mas's exile faction in news coverage. Mas and other Radio Marti officials have emphatically denied the charge.

Mas has, however, served on Radio Marti's advisory board longer than any other member: six years. Members of the bipartisan board are appointed by the president, usually for three-year terms, but Mas has remained the board's chairman since its formation in 1986. After appointment, each member must be confirmed by the Senate; no more than five members can belong to the same political party; and each must receive a national security clearance. Four board members are based in Washington, D.C.; four, including Mas and Tony Costa, a Foundation director, live in or near Miami. One, former U.S. Rep. Clair Burgener, commutes from Rancho Santa Fe, California, to the board's bimonthly meetings in Washington or Miami.

The advisory board doesn't have authority to hire or fire Radio Marti employees, says Jim Skinner, the board's executive director; it recommends strategy and policy. Those recommendations, while not binding, are "more than likely" followed by Radio Marti staff, Skinner adds.

"An advisory board is supposed to advise, but Jorge Mas went beyond that," says former Marti director Betancourt, echoing accusations made by Mas's political foes and by some Miami broadcast executives. "Now he's really running the [Radio Marti] operation." Betancourt's boss at the time, Richard Carlson, now a Public Broadcasting Corporation official, denies that, saying, "The advisory board doesn't run Marti."

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