Mr. Diaz-Balart Goes to Washington

When an unsuspecting Colorado congressman tries to cut funding to Radio and TV Martí, the freshman lawmaker gives a taste of exile politics, Miami-style

As fourth-term Democratic Rep. David Skaggs walked to the podium on the evening of July 1, he was still bristling over the events of the past few hours. Cuban American politics had arrived with a vengeance in the halls of Congress, and it had just cost Skaggs's Colorado district $23 million in federal funds.

It had been a long, unpleasant day.
Right then, at a few minutes past 7:00 p.m., the House floor was empty; most members of Congress were already on their way home for the Fourth of July recess. But Skaggs was going to speak anyway, for the record. And standing a few feet away at a second lectern was Rep. Jose Serrano, a fellow Democrat from the South Bronx who was there to lend his moral support.

The trouble had arisen several weeks before. In a tough budget year, as a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee -- specifically, of the subcommittee that oversees funding for the departments of commerce, justice, and state -- Skaggs had been looking for programs to cut from the 1994 budget. In Radio Martí and TV Martí, he believed he had found two prime candidates. And indeed, in mid-June, at Skaggs's urging, the subcommittee had voted to cut all funding for both programs, a total of nearly $28 million.

A week later, though, when the trimmed budget went to the full Appropriations Committee, Miami Rep. Carrie Meek successfully argued to allow $8.7 million in funding for Radio Martí, in spite of Skaggs's objections. Before the appropriations bill went before the entire House of Representatives for consideration, Meek, along with fellow Miami representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, had met with Skaggs to persuade him not to do anything that would endanger Radio Martí. But as Meek had told the congressional newspaper Roll Call, Skaggs was unwilling to compromise; he promised to fight against Radio Martí funding on the House floor.

So it had come about that on that fateful first day of July, the day on which the appropriations bill was coming up for debate, Diaz-Balart paid the Rocky Mountain State congressman a visit. While other aspects of the bill were being discussed, the freshman representative from Miami confronted Skaggs and admonished him to abandon his crusade against Radio Martí. (Diaz-Balart's actions are characterized by one congressional source as "a very angry outburst" during which the Floridian warned that if Skaggs didn't leave Radio Martí alone, he would see to it that every program the Coloradan held dear likewise was decimated.)

Skaggs stood his ground.
Although the final House vote on funding for Radio Martí was postponed until the second week in July, Diaz-Balart had wasted no time in making good on his threat. That very afternoon, in a parliamentary move known as a "point of order," he axed a $23 million construction project that was heading for Skaggs's district.

The Cuban American National Foundation wasn't wasting any time, either. No sooner had Diaz-Balart killed the Colorado construction item when the political exile group issued a press release gloating over the pre-emptive strike. The statement, faxed to every major newspaper in Colorado, was entitled, "Opposition to Cuba Initiative Costs Boulder Rep Pet Project." (The foundation was keenly interested for several reasons. Not only do they believe the Martí broadcasts are vital to keeping the Cuban people informed, but foundation chairman Jorge Mas Canosa is also chairman of the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting, which has been the unofficial governing board for both Radio and TV Martí.)

Of course, the fact that Skaggs was about to decry the day's events for the congressional record would not go overlooked.

Jose Cardenas, a Cuban American National Foundation spokesman, implies that Skaggs's response pegs him as nothing short of a bellyaching wimp. "When you throw three roundhouse right hooks at something that is so important to the Cuban American people and then you cry foul when somebody takes a poke back at you, well, it seems to me to be rather surprising behavior," Cardenas says. "He was the one who came looking for the fight. He kept coming back for more, so we gave him more. A person can only roll with the punches for so long."

"If anything, Congressman Diaz-Balart has gained a lot of respect," adds a Republican congressional staffer. "Skaggs never expected that a freshman would have the know-how or the guts to do this. Lincoln has placed himself in a position where he let people know, particularly more senior members of Congress, that they are not always going to get their way with him. Overall, this was good for his image on the Hill."

Not everyone, however, agrees. Rep. Carrie Meek has tried to distance herself from the affair; she told Roll Call she didn't endorse Diaz-Balart's actions. "It's not the way I would've done it," she said, "but I can't speak for anybody else."

While the feud rated barely a mention in the Miami Herald, it was front-page news in the Denver Post. In Washington, Roll Call ran a story about the tiff under the headline, "Freshman Rep. Diaz-Balart Gets Revenge on Rep. Skaggs, to the Tune of $23 Million." "Skaggs Alienates Cuban Lobby" was the headline on a Boulder Daily Camera editorial, which went on to outline the reasons Skaggs believed Radio Martí was a waste of taxpayer money. "This reasoning makes sense to us and probably to many of Skaggs's constituents in Colorado," the editorial reads. "But it is blasphemy to the Cuban American community in Florida. So Cuban-born Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., pulled a parliamentary maneuver to punish Skaggs for his temerity."

For the time being, though, gazing out at all those empty chairs, David Skaggs wasn't concerned with what everybody else was going to think. He just needed to say what he had to say, needed to search for some semblance of reason at the end of what had turned out to be a terribly irrational day.

MR. SKAGGS: Mr. Speaker, I wanted to address the House on a matter that has really been brought to the public's attention through a press release that was put out earlier today by the Cuban American National Foundation with respect to events that occurred in the House and debate and action earlier this afternoon on the appropriations bill for fiscal 1994 for the commerce, justice, state department and the judiciary, and I need to set some background in getting into the real subject matter this evening.

As we are all quite well aware, this is a very difficult budget year for us to work in. We are faced with an absolute cap on discretionary spending, less next year than this year, and so on for the next five years. Each of the appropriations subcommittees, therefore, has really been put to the test of trying to prioritize, find places to save money, identify lower priority programs so that we are able to shift funds to programs that we feel are more vital to the national interest.

In connection with going through the programs within the jurisdiction of the commerce, justice, state subcommittee on which I am a member. I looked at a whole range of potential areas for reductions in spending and came up with a total of about $200 million that I proposed in cuts so that we could accomplish our mission this year under the limits of the Budget Act.

Among the cuts that I proposed to my colleagues on the subcommittee were the funds that had been tentatively identified for Radio Martí and TV Martí broadcast services financed by the United States Government directed at Cuba.

It is really the issue of funding for Radio and TV Martí that prompted the events that I want to address from earlier today. I think it is important, first of all, to establish some of the reasons that it seemed to me that both of these programs were reasonable candidates for elimination, so that we might have more FBI agents or have more efforts made in applied technology or a whole range of other programs that were otherwise going to be shorted more than they already are in the Commerce, Justice, State bill.

TV Martí, very briefly, [is] a particularly dubious program that was being broadcast through a tethered balloon down off the Florida Keys into Cuba, only able to be broadcast between 3:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m., the signal being jammed fairly effectively most of the time by the Cuban Government. We were broadcasting on a channel that was allocated to Havana television. Legitimate questions were raised because of our membership in the International Telecommunications Union whether or not we were in violation of international telecommunications requirements in conducting this activity.

It was very expensive per program hour. To top it all off, the programming really was of a very questionable standard, things like, I am told: Popeye cartoons and the Lives of the Rich and Famous, things that probably are not going to make a great deal of difference in an informed political climate in Cuba.

So that was one program I proposed for elimination in subcommittee. My colleagues went along with the suggestion.

They also agreed to eliminate funding for Radio Martí. Let me just again lay a little bit of the groundwork as to why the several million dollars that were proposed for Radio Martí also struck me as a very likely candidate for reductions in funding, given this very difficult budget year we are in .

First of all, it costs too much. The National Association of Broadcasters reports, for instance, that the average commercial radio station in large markets in this country spends about five million dollars a year. Radio Martí, on the other hand, was spending over $20 million a year. Even at the reduced level that was ultimately suggested by the full Committee on Appropriations last week, we would be paying double the private sector standard for the broadcasts going out of Radio Martí.

Its 1994 budget contains a number of seemingly excessive or unnecessary expenses. For instance, some $300,000 for talent involved in panel discussions and commentaries. Certainly by my experience I think most of us know that most reputable commercial news agencies do not have to pay for guests or interviews.

Some eight million dollars for its employees. With some 150 employees, that is an average salary and benefits of over $50,000 a year. And $342,000 for audience research. With the audience in Cuba, it is questionable, it seems to me, how you are practically able to apply those funds to that purpose. Close to one million dollars for technical operations, for which the average radio station in this country pays some $40,000 a year. I wonder why Radio Martí needs to spend so much for a transmitter! A transmitter is a transmitter, regardless of where it is broadcasting. Even on a percentage kind of calculation, Radio Martí's engineering costs were extraordinarily high.

They were also proposing to spend over $200,000 for domestic interviewers. I am not sure what those folks do. Anyway, there were substantial costs associated with this program.

If it were a unique program and one of proven effectiveness that was providing a service that was not being furnished in any other fashion, we might be able to rationalize those kinds of costs. But I think it comes up short there as well.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates there are 23 commercial radio stations in South Florida that reach Cuban listeners. Nine of them broadcast in Spanish, and five of the Spanish-language stations have primarily news or a news-talk format, presumably a source of much the same kind of public information, news, and analysis that is the mission of Radio Martí.

Radio Martí also thinks that these stations reach Cuba, in that it has leased time itself on two of them to broadcast its own programs.

The signals of Radio Martí are often jammed, and that jamming sheds some doubt on the claim that 70 percent of the Cuban population regularly listens. According to their budget request, overcoming jamming has become Radio Martí's top priority. One wonders if that is the problem, again given the other sources of free radio signals into the Cuban market, whether this is a particularly cost-effective program.

Its assertion of audience size is also, quote, questionable. There is no way of validating this, obviously. There is no Nielsen ratings for Cuba. But the widely quoted statistic that 70 percent of the Cuban people listen to Radio Martí seems to be based primarily on a 1991 survey of some 487 Cubans seeking asylum in this country, which may not be an entirely objective pool of respondents.

The quality of programming for Radio Martí has also raised numerous allegations of unsound practices and questionable contracts, incompetence, and censorship. Violations of federal rules and regulations appear to be a serious problem there.

The former director of Radio Martí, Ernesto Betancourt, who resigned in 1990, charges that he was ousted because he refused to promote the political aspirations of Cuban American hard-liners. The former director of the Office of Cuban Broadcasting also resigned earlier this year, citing conflicts within TV and Radio Martí over their coverage of the Cuban American community in Miami.

Finally, a reporter in my area of the country who was recently in Cuba for an extensive assignment reports that from the interviews done by this reporter, anyway, the Cubans are really a pretty sophisticated media audience; that they discount or distrust all government-generated media, whether it comes from Cuba or the United States; and they do in fact rely mainly on other sources of information, including a very effective underground grapevine that taps into CNN signals and newspapers coming in from Miami and so forth.

Anyway, for all of those reasons, it just seemed to me, given our shortages of funding for a whole range of vital national programs, that these were two programs that could well stand to be eliminated without seriously jeopardizing our national interest.

So in view of that, I was particularly startled earlier today when my colleague, the gentleman from Florida [Mr. Diaz-Balart], approached me on the floor of the House and expressed his strongest possible objection to my plan to try to delete funding for Radio Martí from this appropriations bill which we had under debate earlier this afternoon. He said that he did not intend to threaten me, but that if I followed through with my plans, he would do all he could to go after everything he could find that was important to me.

He argued that I should back off of my objection to Radio Martí funding because it was the most important program to him and the Cuban Americans that he represents, while cutting the program I conceded was certainly not the most important issue in the world for me, although I thought it was the appropriate thing to do.

I attempted to explain that this involved matters of national interests because of its obvious fiscal and foreign policy dimensions, and that therefore this was not just a project in a member's district about which arguably he was due some particular deference, but rather that each member of the House had a legitimate basis to address the issue. I told Mr. Diaz-Balart that I planned to proceed with my challenge to Radio Martí funding.

Later this afternoon, he proceeded to raise a point of order against some $82 million in construction funding for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, known by its acronym NIST, about half, less than half of which was probably going to NIST facilities in the district I represent in Colorado.

As the Speaker is aware, that point of order was sustained and the money was stricken from the bill. Sometime later, the work on this bill was suspended before the House had even reached the portion of this appropriations bill involving funding for Radio Martí. We are expected to resume it when we return from the Fourth of July work period on July 13 or 14.

In any case, I was greatly disturbed and saddened that the normal legislative business of this House should have been subjected to this kind of retributive tactics and would not have requested this time on special order but for the fact that the CANF proceeded to issue a press release crowing over the success of Representative Diaz-Balart in attacking a program presumed to be important to me because of my stated intention to deal with funding for Radio Martí.

As the press release reads,"Colorado Rep. David Skaggs's opposition to peaceful U.S. radio broadcasting to Cuba has apparently cost his district $23 million in federal funds. The money was earmarked to build a National Institute of Standards and Technology facility at a Boulder-area university. During today's House debate on the fiscal year 1994 appropriations bill. Mr. Skaggs announced his intention -- "By the way, I did not so announce, in any case.

"Announced his intention to eliminate $8.7 million in federal funds for the continuation of Radio Martí."

It goes on:
"The NIST project was subsequently excised in a point of order by Cuban American Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Florida), a firm backer of Radio Martí and freedom for Cuba, after Rep. Skaggs rebuffed Rep. Diaz-Balart's attempts to reach a compromise on cutting Radio Martí."

Let me just say, I wish there were grounds or an opportunity for compromise. It was basically my understanding of my colleague's proposition to me that I either back off or else. There was not much of an opportunity to compromise.

Perfectly legitimate for Mr. Diaz-Balart to raise the point of order that he did. The program, the NIST construction money that he attacked, has not been specifically authorized in statute so, under the rules of the House, there was nothing intrinsically improper about the move against the NIST funding.

It is troubling, though, that given this press release, his motivation seems to be not that he objects to funding for the National Institutes for Standards and Technology but that he objects to me and the way I try to carry out my responsibilities as a member of the Committee on Appropriations.

I think it is sad and unfortunate that given the necessary give and take of the legislative process in the House, with members' deeply held views and principles in the balance, that matters might degenerate into any kind of vindictiveness along these lines.

Certainly, the alliances and the antagonisms that exist in this House shift and realign day to day, as different issues come before us. I think we all have to keep in mind that those with whom we may disagree today will be our allies on another issue tomorrow, and it is essential to and really critical for us to keep in mind the paramount requirement for civil discourse, if this legislative body is to carry out its responsibilities in a respectful and respectable way.

To use the old aphorism, we need to be able to disagree without being disagreeable.

My colleague, the gentleman from New York [Mr. Serrano], has been kind enough to join me on the floor this evening and has some substantial experience of his own with respect to these issues.

I yield to the gentleman from New York [Mr. Serrano].
MR. SERRANO: First of all, let me commend the gentleman on two points that I think are extremely important.

First of all, for his ability to stay totally calm, cool, and collected during what I know is a very difficult situation, a situation which requires for many members to be very concerned about the kind of actions that were taken today and, actually, to be very upset.

But at the same time, I feel that it was important for him to take the time to put forth this information.

The problem, having said those two things, is that I am almost tempted to sort of smile a little bit and say, "Welcome to the club." There is a situation that exists in our country which is well known in some communities and totally unknown in others, that there is a group called the Cuban American National Foundation which uses difficult, difficult tactics whenever you disagree with them on any policy that has to deal with the island of Cuba, its present, its future, and, in many cases, even its past.

This group is one that is funded through private contributions as well as receives government monies. It receives grants from the National Endowment for Democracy. It receives grants in an indirect way through Radio and TV Martí, because the chairman of the CANF is also the chairman of the board of TV Martí and the chairman of the board of Radio Martí. And so it all becomes a conglomerate, more or less, used to put forth a policy, a philosophy towards bringing about political changes in Cuba.

That is okay. Interestingly enough, if we were to discuss it, the gentleman from Colorado, myself, and members of the foundation would agree on political changes in Cuba. What we do not agree on and what the gentleman is now a member of the particular club is that if you disagree in any way, shape, or form, you are questioned not on that particular action you took, in this case Radio and TV Martí, but in many cases you are labeled.

I cannot tell you how many times people I know are labeled on Spanish radio as being Communists because they may oppose, for instance, the embargo, the trade embargo on Cuba.

Article after article and publication after publication will indicate that this foundation continues to attack anyone who disagrees with them.

Just last August, the Americas Watch and the Fund for Free Expression conducted a study within our borders of human rights and civil rights violations. These are organizations that traditionally tell us what is going wrong in other countries.

These two groups said that in Miami there was an abuse of human rights, documenting a campaign of intimidation and terror, and criticizing U.S. government encouragement primarily through funding of groups that are closely identified. And this group in particular, with efforts to restrict freedom of expression. And the principal example, says the report, is money granted to such groups as the CANF.

On the issue of Radio and TV Martí, I have stated before in public and taken extreme amounts of heat for it that this is an electronic toy created for this foundation to put forth their policies towards what the future of Cuba should be like.

If my colleague would permit, I think that if anybody in this country wants to get an electronic toy, they should get a Radio Shack credit card and not come here and get funded and then use this little toy to promote a policy without giving full support to people who may have a different view.

Now we are not discussing the policy of Cuba. Let us take a second to talk about that, because I think that is important. It is at the bottom of all this.

For 30-odd years we have had an embargo on Cuba. Radio and TV Martí are part of a failed policy. Why is it a failed policy? Simple, if the intent of all our acts on foreign policy toward Cuba was to bring about a political change, we failed. There has been no political change. The political change that may come will come as a direct result of political changes in the Soviet Union which can no longer assist the Cuban economy.

It was not our policy that created that, it was the lack of somebody else's future policy that created it.

As the gentleman has stated, in Miami right now there are about five radio stations that beam into Cuba on a daily basis. Those radio stations, because of the foundation's influence in Miami, I will tell the members, are not allowed to spend one minute of the day saying that anything positive could be going on in Cuba, or worse, that there could be a new American policy to solve the problem of the relationship between Cuba and the United States.

What is the need for TV and Radio Martí? Only that it is a tool for some people to stay in power, locally. These people make no secret about the fact that, should there be a political change in Cuba, they want to return and establish themselves as the new government. This is what we are talking about here.

The gentleman is courageous enough to stand up and say, "We are in a cost-cutting mood. These are changes that have to take place." For the first time this year, I joined the gentleman on the Committee on Appropriations and was saddened to see that, as a representative of the poorest district in the nation, the South Bronx, the poorest district in the nation, the monies were extremely short in talking about housing and social services and education.

Now we are spending all these dollars for what is a failed policy and a waste of time. He was correct in bringing up those questions. What he did not anticipate, perhaps, is that now he finds himself on the list of enemies for the CANF and the lack of tact, the lack of democratic principle to immediately put a press release into a member's district and to try to intimidate him in that way A they have a right to do that, this is a democracy. Unlike them, we believe that you can do that whenever you want, but we believe you can disagree.

The gentleman disagreed, and for that, they will try to make him pay a price. Again, welcome to the club. There are so many of us who, any time we turn on the radio, find attacks about what we stand for.

I want to really congratulate the gentleman for putting forth today's conversation, and to tell the gentleman that I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him in making these questions and continuing to make these questions, and to alerting people, perhaps starting today, that there exists within our borders a group of people who have set policy A past administrations have allowed them to set policy toward Cuba, and that has to end: that they can become part of a lot of voices who will determine what the future of Cuba should look like including people who live in Cuba right now.

MR. SKAGGS: I am very grateful for the gentleman's comments. Let me just say, I do not think there should be any question or doubt left in the minds of anyone that may be listening to us this evening, that no one is here to suggest that anything but our wholehearted endorsement of the need for change in the government and the economic policies of Cuba. I want to make sure that there is no doubt about that. I am a strong supporter for free institutions there, as we all are elsewhere in the world.

The question in my mind was the effectiveness of spending millions of dollars on these programs to accomplish that purpose, and clearly, that effectiveness had not been demonstrated. In these difficult budget times, it seemed to me that there was an area where we could save some money and not jeopardize our national interests.

I am grateful to the gentleman. I believe he feels the same way about our basic objectives here. It is not what our goals are with respect to a free Cuba, but how we use scarce taxpayer dollars to effectuate those goals.

MR. SERRANO: I am totally in agreement. One of the things that I had mentioned to the gentleman before is that if you happen to listen to short-wave radio, you will hear there is a lot of communication between the United States and Cuba. This, as he well pointed out, is something that is not necessary.

Interestingly enough, not that we negotiate with individuals we do not deal with, that we do not recognize as leaders, anyway, but when TV Martí came in it created such a difficulty in Cuba that the Cuban government then started jamming Radio Martí, and on many occasions had said, "If you lift TV Martí we will stop jamming Radio Martí."

So to that extent, what we are doing is creating another layer on top of what we already had because we were not allowing either one of our institutions to get in.

As you well know, TV Martí at times is ridiculous. A balloon up in the air is called Fat Albert, and every so often it gets loose and we have to chase it all over the Florida Keys and the Everglades to bring it back so they can broadcast Popeye cartoons at 3:00 in the morning.

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