Radio Free Miami

Welcome to the new Radio Marti, dragged into the swirl of local exile politics, more quarrelsome than ever, and growing increasingly irrelevant

No one expected that Radio Marti's relocation to Miami from Washington would go smoothly. Since its creation in 1983, the short-wave station, which beams its broadcasts to Cuba, has been a controversial pull toy, tugged at one end by Washington and the other by Miami's Cuban exile community, principally businessman and power broker Jorge Mas Canosa. At the heart of the struggle was a desire to control its programming and the subsequent influence on Cubans living under Fidel Castro's regime. In other words, control of an arm of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.

Anyone watching (or listening) knew that, with the station finally splashing into Miami's overheated political cauldron, substantial and perhaps bloody change was ahead.

No one could predict the end of the story. Certainly no one anticipated that Mas Canosa, a prevailing presence at Radio Marti since the station's inception and its most powerful lobbyist for the funding that continues to pour out of Washington, would die suddenly last November at the age of 58. With his death, a leadership gap cracked open and the future of Radio Marti became a wild card in the already turbulent world of Miami's exile politics.

Although the station is still in transition, it is clearly being steered in new directions by Herminio San Roman, director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) -- which oversees daily operations -- and Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera, Radio Marti's new director. Some changes are quite innovative, such as the use of more interviews with independent journalists living in Cuba. But critics of other changes -- less news, more talk, and more and more talk that sounds exactly like AM exile radio -- are speaking about the "Miamization" of Radio Marti.

An El Nuevo Herald columnist, Puerto Rican journalist Marta Rodriguez, weighed in on the subject May 13. "Those who listen barely recognize the programming, confusing it with that of other well-known, strident Miami stations," wrote Rodriguez. "The recently appointed directors of [Radio Marti] have acted rapidly to ... offer a radio menu that, curiously, responds more to local political interests and their own than to the tastes of their island audience."

"Radio Marti now has a focus muy de Miami," says Enrique López Oliva, a history professor at University of Havana who also occasionally serves as a news correspondent or commentator for various foreign media. "It's more intransigent than it was before in Washington; all the new people seem to be more extremist. There's less news, there's more general talk. Now we prefer Radio Netherlands or BBC for news."

According to the federal government, the purpose of Radio Marti is to further U.S. foreign policy interests. (The same is true for TV Marti, which is funded on a smaller scale and is rarely seen in Cuba owing to jamming by the Cuban government. The combined annual Marti budgets are $23 million.) While broadcasting from Washington, news staffers were, according to their own accounts, scrupulous about holding to journalistic guidelines promulgated by the United States Information Agency (USIA), the parent agency for all federally funded broadcasting entities. Those guidelines call for balance, multiple sourcing, and strict avoidance of biased or judgmental language. Staffers say they were under such scrutiny from federal investigators and the press that they were ultraconscious of objectivity.

Before they went on the air, programs were evaluated by an editorial committee and reviewed by focus groups of newly arrived Cubans. A research department provided in-depth news analyses.

Today Radio Marti's journalistic standards appear to be changing, and the checks and balances exercised in Washington have been either eliminated or diluted until, in the opinion of many critics, they are ineffective. "What's going on [at the OCB] is a national disgrace and it's getting worse," contends Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Smith is a long-time and outspoken critic of the Marti stations and of Mas Canosa, whose strident politics were fixated on Castro's downfall and a free Cuba. But in this case Smith's sentiments echo those of his political opposites.

"Radio Marti could be the jewel in the crown of U.S. international broadcasting. But in the last year things have gone from bad to worse," agrees a Washington source familiar with OCB operations and long allied with Mas Canosa and conservative causes. "Radio Marti has always been very careful to husband its credibility, and what's happening is just crazy. There used to be multiple sources of control over what went on the air. San Roman has stripped them away."

The changes at Radio Marti may constitute, by accident or design, a change of mission for the station as it moves to the right from its formerly evenhanded (sometimes boring) delivery of international news to Cubans, who have little access to a broader perspective. As noted by critics, its voice is now frequently indistinguishable from that of exile radio and its unrelenting call for a Cuba libre in which exiles could once again hold power -- a dream not widely shared by Cubans living on the island. The majority of these are black or mulatto and their priority is not necessarily a completely different form of government. Most Cubans love their country even as they chafe under the poverty and the near-total absence of civil rights the Marxist regime has brought. They are grateful for free quality education and free medical care, despite a critical shortage of medicine. They have no interest in more radio reports from Miami exiles intent on educating them about U.S. democracy or reminding them of a "better" time when their country was ruled by rich white Cubans.

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