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TV Marti's limp blimp sets sail once again for the halls of Congress

Earlier this month Joe Duffey, director of the U.S. Information Agency, sent Congress a copy of his long-awaited report about TV Marti. It was Duffey's recommendation that Radio Marti's sister station, designed to beam news and entertainment programming into Cuba, should remain on the air. In itself the recommendation wasn't all that surprising: Duffey's boss, President Bill Clinton, had pledged strong support for both stations during his campaign, and he had held to his promises. It was Duffey's rationale that caused a stir: Enough viewers on the island were tuning in to the station, the USIA director asserted, to justify its continued existence.

There was no shortage of skeptics to take issue with that statement.
A year ago, amid Congressional budget hearings, critics mounted a spirited attack against the viability of TV Marti, which had been on the air since 1990 at a total cost to taxpayers of more than $72 million. A New York Times editorial dubbed the project the "limp blimp," in reference to the unmanned dirigible that broadcasts the station's signal. Tethered in the Florida Keys, the floating transmitter can only operate during good weather; even then, in order to avoid violating international treaties, the station is only on the air from 3:30 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. When it does broadcast, the Cuban government is able to block the signal.

Later, the Washington Times weighed in. In October the conservative D.C. daily sent a reporter to Cuba to see who, if anyone, watched TV Marti. The reporter only found a few people who had ever tuned in; none had done so recently or with any regularity.

At about that same time, members of Congress released the results of a once-classified study in which U.S. officials secretly roamed the countryside around Havana in the middle of the night but were unable to pick up TV Marti on portable sets.

In the end, TV Marti supporters and opponents had agreed to a compromise: The station would be budgeted for fiscal year 1993-94, while a special panel examined whether "maintaining television broadcasting to Cuba is technically sound and effective, is consistently being received by a sufficient Cuban audience to warrant its continuation, and is in the best interests of the United States," according to the bill that authorized funding. If the panel determined that TV Marti failed to meet any of those criteria, the station was to be shut down.

The panel members -- handpicked by Joe Duffey -- sent him their analysis in March. "The Panel is able to state categorically that at present TV Marti's broadcasts are not consistently received by a substantial number of Cubans," they wrote. "This finding is based on research commissioned by this Panel, including firsthand investigations in Cuba and a professional, but inevitably highly imperfect, survey of Cubans applying for visas in the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. These investigations confirm the reports of technical specialists, as well as the testimony of Cubans recently arrived in the United States, and of a broad range of U.S. specialists and scholars on Cuban issues. Whatever TV Marti's shortcomings, they are negligible compared to its inability to reach its intended audience."

The survey mentioned in the report was undertaken December 1993. -- random sampling of 763 Cubans applying for visas at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana was asked to fill out a questionnaire regarding their radio and TV habits. When asked to list those TV stations they watched at least once a week, none cited TV Marti. When asked to indicate which radio and TV stations they tuned in (by checking boxes next to a list of media outlets), only 31 respondents -- or four percent -- checked off TV Marti.

The survey has been criticized on the grounds that some respondents might have attempted to supply answers they believed the U.S. officials were looking for -- thus inflating results such as TV Marti's purported four percent viewership. Nevertheless, for USIA director Joe Duffey, those 31 Cubans were proof TV Marti is accomplishing its objective, reason enough to warrant his request that Congress supply more than ten million dollars to operate the station next year. "The present audience seems sufficient to continue television broadcasting and, with some innovations, attempt to increase the audience," Duffey wrote in his July 7 report.

The next day, the critics pounced.
"Mr. Duffey's finding that TV Marti 'is consistently being received by a sufficient Cuban audience to warrant its continuation' sets a new world record for willful disregard of the facts," Rep. David Skaggs wrote in a prepared statement issued to the media. "There is simply no, repeat no, reliable, factual data to support this finding, and without it, the decision to continue TV Marti is illegal. The advisory committee itself determined that TV Marti has for all practical purposes no viewing audience. Mr. Duffey should be bound by that determination. He has let his hopes for what might be get in the way of what is. What TV Marti is is a pointless exercise in futility -- spending millions to send a TV signal to no one and a grotesque waste of taxpayers' money."

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