Last week voters in Colorado's Second Congressional District elected a new representative to replace David Skaggs, a respected Democrat who is retiring after serving twelve years in the House of Representatives. Ordinarily the departure of a congressman whose district is more than 1500 miles away would pass without much notice in Miami. That would be unfortunate.
Skaggs deserves notice and credit for doing something no member of Congress from South Florida, from either party, has had the courage to do: publicly declare that TV Marti is a farce and that funding for it should cease. "It is, by any fair and objective analysis, a joke," Skaggs offers during a recent interview. "And it is all the more hilarious -- or offensive -- because of the high soberness of those who attempt to defend it."
Those defenders of TV Marti, and of its sister operation Radio Marti, have been at odds with Skaggs since 1993. That was the year Skaggs, as a newly appointed member of the House Appropriations Committee, was snooping around in hopes of cutting wasteful government spending and stumbled upon the budgets for both the Martis. "I was looking for places to save some money that wasn't being spent well in order to shift it to areas that seemed to be of greater need," he recalls.
At the time, Radio Marti's signal was not only weak and ineffective, but Skaggs says he had serious concerns that the station's hiring practices and programming were being controlled by Cuban exiles in Miami, most notably the late Jorge Mas Canosa, head of the influential Cuban American National Foundation and chairman of the presidential advisory board overseeing both stations. So in 1993 Skaggs set out to eliminate funding for the Martis and walked right into the buzz saw of the Cuban-American lobby, which marshalled its forces to maintain funding for the stations. And as a warning to Skaggs and any other representatives who might try to mess with the Martis in the future, the stations' supporters attempted to cut from the federal budget projects in Skaggs's Colorado district. Leading the charge was Miami's Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who had just been elected to the House.
Skaggs was astonished by the onslaught; he commented at the time: "It's a set of tactics I have not encountered in politics before. I have encountered my share of hardball, but it's a little more brazen than I have seen." Time has not changed that view.
"There has always been a defensiveness on the part of the proponents of the Martis that, in my mind, [reflects] the lack of merit of the whole operation," he says. "I think they well know that this is a fairly tenuously justifiable operation. And so the very vehemence with which they launch into opposition whenever challenged reveals how fragile they realize this proposition is."
Though it would have been politically expedient for him to drop his opposition the following year, Skaggs, a former Marine captain who volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War, was not about to back down from what he believed was a blatant waste of taxpayer money. And so for each of the past six years Skaggs has been one of the few members of Congress willing to criticize the stations, which are operated by the Voice of America, a division of the U.S. Information Agency.
Over time he has seen improvements made to Radio Marti, and as a result he no longer campaigns to cut its budget. "As so often happens," he says with apparent pride, "things change when they come under scrutiny."
Skaggs more recently concentrated his attention on TV Marti, a program, he says, that falls into a "relatively small class of truly idiotic things" funded by Congress. Nobody is watching TV Marti, according to Skaggs, who also sits on the House Select Committee on Intelligence. And yet taxpayers have spent more than $100 million since 1990 to transmit a signal that is easily jammed by the Cuban government.
"It is as outrageous a waste of money today as it was when I first learned about it, and that remains galling," he says. "I was then and I remain infuriated by the corruption of United States policy that is inherent in our Cuba policy generally, and in this aspect of it in particular. And by corruption I mean the untoward influence of a relatively small segment of the population in Florida and the money that small segment of the population brings to bear, and how it distorts the policy choices this government makes."
Skaggs believes our current policy toward Cuba is "hugely counterproductive to our long-term national interests" and argues that the president should use our improved relations with Vietnam as a road map when dealing with Cuba. The recent apprehension of Cuban spies in Miami hasn't changed his view. "Let's try to have some coherent and consistent attitudes toward these sorts of things," he says. "Nobody would suggest that we ought to break off relations with Russia because Russia still conducts espionage against this country. Nor would we do it with China or even some of our friends who do it."