Tales of the Limp Blimp

Who's watching TV Marti? No one. Who's paying for TV Marti? We are. At least for another few months.

That a liberal bastion like the New York Times would command Congress to turn off TV Marti came as a surprise to no one. In an editorial published October 1, the Times referred to the controversial television project as "the limp blimp," and noted that it had consumed $67 million since 1990, when it began broadcasting an assortment of Popeye cartoons and news programs toward Cuba. The word toward Cuba being significant, since rarely does the signal get through to the people it is intended to entertain and inform.

The unmanned "blimp," tethered to Cudjoe Key a few miles north of Key West, relays Marti's signal from 3:30 and 6:00 a.m. to avoid violating international broadcasting treaties. Not exactly prime-time hours. Worse, the floating transmitter can only operate during good weather. Worse still, the pictures are almost always jammed by Fidel Castro's government. "Given the sacrifices asked of all federal agencies," implored the Times, "it is indecent to squander millions on TV programs that scarcely anybody ever watches."

A congressional scolding from the Times may have been predictable, and of little consequence to Capitol Hill's ardent supporters of TV Marti. But a scathing article two weeks later in the conservative Washington Times was a different matter. The Washington Times sent a reporter to travel Cuba in search of someone, anyone who had seen TV Marti. The quest did uncover a few people who had tuned in, but none recently and none with any regularity. However, the reporter did encounter many Cubans who have acquired homemade satellite dishes that pick up U.S. networks and cable programs. "I have HBO and CNN," one man told the paper. "Why do I need TV Marti?"

In addition to the anecdotal evidence portraying TV Marti as a bigger flop than the Chevy Chase Show, congressional critics pointed to a recently declassified government report revealing that even U.S. officials, secretly roaming the countryside around Havana, were unable to pick up TV Marti on portable television sets.

Armed with such evidence of failure, TV Marti opponents thought they finally had the momentum to ground the blimp once and for all. They were almost right.

The battle began in June, when Rep. David Skaggs, a Colorado Democrat, targeted TV Marti and its sister operation, Radio Marti, for the budget-cutter's ax. Eventually the House of Representatives voted to kill all funding for the two programs, approximately $28 million annually. (In retaliation, Miami freshman Lincoln Diaz-Balart found a way to slash more than $60 million from programs in Skaggs's home district.)

When the Senate later took up the same matter, South Carolina's Fritz Hollings led the way A with dramatically different results. The vote: continued full funding for both Radio and TV Marti. In order to resolve the impasse, the measure on October 13 went to a conference committee made up of nearly two dozen congressmen and senators, including Skaggs and Hollings.

In matters relating to Cuba, Hollings has been a long-time supporter of the conservative agenda pushed by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and the political action committee with which it is closely allied, the Free Cuba PAC. In turn, Hollings has been generously rewarded with campaign contributions from those same interests. Last year, for example, the Free Cuba PAC donated $5000 to his re-election campaign. CANF chairman Jorge Mas Canosa, along with a number of foundation directors and members, has personally made major contributions to Hollings. One of Hollings's own staffers jokes that the senator is so committed to the conservative wing of the Cuban exile community he'll fight off an attack on broadcasts to Cuba with as much vigor as he would threats to a pet project in downtown Charleston.

And indeed Hollings was ferocious in his support for Radio and TV Marti. In a one-on-one meeting with Skaggs two months ago, according to congressional sources, Hollings made it clear he considered Skaggs's Marti assault to be a personal insult and that as long as he was in the Senate, funding for both programs would continue.

But in order to thoroughly neutralize Skaggs, the pro-Marti side needed to undermine his support in the House, where a large number of Republicans had joined him in voting to eliminate the Marti budgets. The fight quickly took on a highly partisan edge, and Republican whip Newt Gingrich successfully rallied his party's members on the conference committee.

In addition to rumors of deal-making and political threats, the lobbying included a few personal touches. CANF officials, for instance, trotted out Cuba's latest MiG defector, Leonides Basulto, and sat him down with Skaggs. Basulto's message: Cuba is wasting precious aviation fuel by assigning helicopters equipped with special electronic equipment to jam TV Marti's signal. Jorge Mas Canosa, who also serves as chairman of the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting, made several trips to Capitol Hill. Among those he visited was Skaggs. The tàte-a-tàte was later described as "cordial." As one congressional staffer put it: "Mostly Mas Canosa talked about himself."

According to sources familiar with the conference committee negotiations, Hollings's biggest problem came not from Marti opponents but rather from supporters who appeared too willing to compromise, despite a last-minute letter from President Clinton urging full funding. At one point, say the sources, the senator even considered increasing the programs' budgets, just to prove that he could. Hollings, a 27-year Senate veteran, reportedly welcomed a showdown with Skaggs, and was prepared to stall appropriations for unrelated projects if the congressman didn't back down. (Presumably, if Hollings carried out his threat, Skaggs would draw fire from other politicians whose projects were delayed as a result.)

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