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

Thus, says John Nichols, associate professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University and a specialist in international telecommunications, both the right and left could compromise (and be appeased) regarding the always vexing Cuba problem by the same approach, one that was peaceful and nonconfrontational but potentially able to infiltrate Cuban society with American values. "One of the reasons for Radio and later TV Marti was to sort of split the difference between hawks and doves on Cuba," says Nichols. "No doubt Mas Canosa exploited the situation very effectively, and they in effect became his stations, but they probably would not have existed had not Mas Canosa been around."

Loquacious and charismatic, Mas Canosa was frequently accused of trying to influence the radio station's news content. As chairman of the advisory board that has no authority over Marti's programming, Mas Canosa could attempt this only in broad strokes -- such as by influencing the hiring of personnel who would take direction from him -- instead of by executive order. The first Radio Marti director, Ernesto Betancourt, resigned in 1990, saying he'd been pushed out by Mas Canosa because he wouldn't cede to pressures from the CANF relating to news coverage. The degree of Mas Canosa's influence over the broadcasts to Cuba became a constant question.

By the late Eighties and early Nineties, as the clout of CANF and its political action committee was growing, Mas Canosa's influence-building tactics were also under increasing attack from both long-time enemies and turncoat allies. Some prominent Cuban exile activists, including well-known writer and 22-year political prisoner Armando Valladares, broke with Mas Canosa in highly publicized disputes. In 1992 a 60 Minutes segment and a documentary carried by the Public Broadcasting Service portrayed Mas Canosa as superpowerful, ruthless, and unscrupulous in retaliating against opponents.

At about the same time, a series of accusations against Mas Canosa by OCB employees led to a flurry of news reports and eventually to an investigation by the USIA's Office of the Inspector General. Employees in Radio Marti's research department alleged that Mas Canosa personally and illegally attempted to direct or influence news coverage; that audience research figures were skewed to show an inflated listenership; and that Radio Marti director Rolando Bonachea, a Mas Canosa ally, punished employees who spoke out against him, Mas Canosa, or other managers.

The investigation, the claims and counterclaims, went on for years. Preliminary findings from the investigation were released in 1995 and appeared to substantiate the allegations against Mas Canosa. But later in 1995, as part of an extensive reorganization within the USIA, the Office of the Inspector General was eliminated and all its cases transferred to the State Department. Although the State Department investigation continues to examine the programming content of Radio Marti, Mas Canosa's role obviously became moot with his death.

Even during the investigation, Mas Canosa's pull in Washington was enormous. Insiders credit it with Congress's stealthy decision to move the Marti stations to Miami, mandated in a 1996 appropriations bill. Despite calls from several lawmakers for open hearings on the move, none were conducted. According to a congressional committee staffer, the relocation was regarded as "a complete shift in U.S. policy" and therefore worthy of scrutiny. Critics warned that the Martis would become rogue stations, out of reach of Washington and controlled by Miami's extremist exile community -- a warning that has gained credence today.

But the criticism didn't matter. No one was going to seriously oppose Jorge Mas Canosa.

Despite Mas Canosa's power, periodic pleas arose from the press and presidential advisers or Congress to infuse the advisory board with new blood. In mid-1996 the Clinton administration was said by some leading newspapers to be ready to loosen Mas Canosa's hold on the board. Rumors circulated about successors, at least one of whom was actually interviewed about her "plans" for the board -- before she disappeared from public view. Mas Canosa stayed in place.

Now that there's an undeniable vacancy, the top candidate being mentioned for the chairmanship is straight-talking State Rep. Annie Betancourt, a Democrat from West Kendall, who confirms she has spoken with the White House and Sen. Robert Torricelli's office.

New blood did arrive at the Martis, however, in the considerable personage of Herminio San Roman, who in 1997 replaced Richard Lobo, a Miami television executive who had resigned as director of the OCB in frustration after trying to introduce a plan for cost cutting and reorganization. San Roman is both willful and politically sophisticated. In fact, some observers say, his primary aim in hiring prominent Cubans as show hosts is to strengthen his local political connections.

As with Mas Canosa, there are those who think San Roman wields his power too widely. Some employees say he is the real problem in the operation, that he has provoked unprecedented labor unrest. While there are also plenty of workers who say morale is high and the personnel shifts reflect normal federal office politics, employees' union officials say their members are unhappier and more intimidated than they've ever been.

Hope Butler, of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), wonders why she gets tapped on the shoulder and beckoned into darkened cubicles when she visits the OCB office in Miami to speak about labor issues. "Nobody will make an appointment, but they ask me, 'Can I call you at home?' What the hell is wrong about meeting in the office? People are scared to death. San Roman's management style is affecting my whole bargaining unit."

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