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

Those in the know understood that the meeting would become a Radio Marti reference point.

On this spring day, OCB director San Roman was boycotting the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting, which is charged with monitoring Radio Marti's effectiveness and which had gathered to collect information from San Roman about the station's sweeping program changes.

Such a boycott by the OCB's top official -- an act of blatant disrespect -- had never occurred before, and in fact would have been unthinkable in the past.

Without answers to their questions, the advisory board members could provide nothing for reporters, who were clamoring to know more about the rhyme and reason at the "new" Radio Marti. "We don't have any information either," said board member and veteran Miami radio host Salvador Lew. "We're in the same position as you."

Although the board operates in an advisory capacity for OCB overseers in Washington and cannot force anyone to attend its meetings, San Roman had sent a powerful message: He will not cowed by the board his predecessors took seriously.

The next day a letter and resolutions from the board arrived at the White House. "Significant problems have developed at Radio Marti and Television Marti since the appointment of Herminio San Roman as director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting," read one resolution. It called for an investigation of Radio Marti programming and of the contracting of personnel who may have conflicts of interest.

The news reports that followed generally credited the morass to an acrimonious power struggle between the new OCB leaders and the old guard of former Mas Canosa allies. Joseph Duffey, director of the USIA, defended San Roman, saying he had "brought credible leadership" to the office.

But San Roman's refusal to cooperate with the board could not be dismissed so easily by insiders. True, in some regards it had been just another red-hot chapter in the simmering history of Radio Marti, which since its birth on the anniversary of Cuban Independence Day -- May 20, 1985 -- has been a story of larger-than-life personalities, suspected misbehavior, and governmental investigations.

This time, though, the conflict went beyond a typical political spoils struggle. Until now the action surrounding the Martis had taken place in Washington; the infighting and intrigue were part of the Washington game. But now the turmoil was embedded in the Miami political community.

Jorge Mas Canosa, founding chairman of the influential Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), had long wanted to relocate the Marti stations to Miami, his base of operations and also the city that is as psychologically close to Cuba as one can get without actually being there. Mas Canosa and the proponents of the move argued that the Martis belonged in Miami because of that proximity, because experts on Cuban affairs were more plentiful here, and because the city's Latin labor pool is extensive. Opponents of the move saw it as just another way for Mas Canosa to exert more control by removing the stations from Washington's immediate oversight.

Congress didn't want to fight Mas Canosa over the move. As chairman of the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting for nearly thirteen years until his death, Mas Canosa exerted significant -- some say excessive -- influence not only over the OCB's affairs, but over the generous funding and operational autonomy accorded the Marti stations in Congress. No one took him lightly. If Mas Canosa had lived, it's not unreasonable to think that Herminio San Roman would have showed up at the most recent President's Advisory Board meeting after all.

Still, it appeared to many observers that Mas Canosa's personal influence was waning when he died. The world of exile politics was shifting, and not always in his direction. The tough anti-Castro line he espoused was being questioned in Washington more seriously than ever before as Pope John Paul II prepared to make his historic visit to the island. Within the microcosm of the OCB, its newly appointed director, San Roman, had replaced or demoted most of the senior people identified as being either Mas Canosa allies or simply having cooperated with Mas Canosa allies. As far as Mas Canosa and the majority of board members were concerned, the worst offenses were the new hires and the programs being suddenly broadcast by San Roman without the customary board discussion and review.

Mas Canosa probably would not have been disturbed by San Roman's programming changes on the basis of political philosophy; in fact, the new AM sound-alike shows mirrored his own politics more closely than had earlier, more balanced reporting from Washington's Radio Marti.

But he would have been unsettled because he was accustomed to having his way, in Washington politics and at the radio station that had been his brainchild. Ronald Reagan had appointed him as the first chairman of the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting, a position he never had to relinquish; neither George Bush nor Bill Clinton saw fit to replace him.

The concept of Radio Marti was similar to that of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, so-called surrogate stations that supplied information to nations without a free press. Even though Voice of America broadcast in Spanish and Portuguese throughout Latin American, and still does, Radio Marti's mission was specifically to promote U.S.-style democracy in Cuba.

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