No Mas, No Meet

America's favorite propaganda boondoggle is deteriorating and the president doesn't care

For a few days this month, a letter to Pres. Bill Clinton roused some excitement among those interested in Radio and TV Martí. The June 24 missive from Christopher Coursen, acting chairman of the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting (PAB), followed the release in June of a U.S. State Department audit detailing slipshod journalistic and management practices at Radio Martí. The report concerned many government officials who regulate the broadcaster, but Coursen was alone in his strong public reaction. He asked Clinton to fire Herminio San Roman, director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), "immediately before further harm [to the station's credibility] occurs."

Clinton appointed San Roman in early 1997 to head the OCB, which operates the Martís. Since then the Miami attorney has made many controversial programming and personnel changes, which some observers blame for a recent decrease in Radio Martí's Cuban audience. The station costs U.S. taxpayers almost $13 million per year and is regarded as an important aspect of the government's policy toward Cuba.

So when Coursen called for San Roman's firing, Clinton might have been expected to notice. But an administration spokesman dismissed mounting concerns about San Roman with a bland statement: "We have confidence in the integrity of broadcasting to Cuba and in Mr. San Roman's leadership." In fact top administration bureaucrats have taken pains to silence PAB criticism, and failing that, have ignored the board into obscurity.

Without the late Jorge Mas Canosa, the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting isn't getting much respect
JK Yearick
Without the late Jorge Mas Canosa, the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting isn't getting much respect
Acting chairman Christopher Coursen
Acting chairman Christopher Coursen

Two years ago no one would have disregarded a PAB call. Now some familiar with government broadcasting operations say the group has become a joke. That's mainly because Jorge Mas Canosa isn't around. The powerful and charismatic Cuban-American businessman was chairman of the nine-member bipartisan PAB from its inception in 1984 until his death in November 1997. Mas Canosa held great sway on Capitol Hill for two decades and was the person most responsible for the creation of Radio and TV Martí. The PAB, which Congress established to monitor the Martís' broadcasts and make recommendations to the president, "had become a sort of parallel authority on Cuba policy under Jorge," says former White House official Richard Nuccio.

All PAB members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate for three-year terms; however, no successor to Mas Canosa was named after his death, and no new board appointments have been made since before Clinton took office in 1993. Owing to deaths and resignations, four seats including the chairman's, are vacant.

The PAB is only a watchdog panel. Regulatory power over Radio Martí lies with the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a presidentially appointed nine-member body that in October will become an agency overseeing all international broadcasting operations. In 1994 Congress created the BBG, abolished two broadcasting advisory boards, and left the PAB intact. No one wanted to tangle with Mas Canosa. "The reason they didn't eliminate our [board] was obviously because of Jorge," says Christopher Coursen, who was elected acting chairman this past year by fellow board members. "Although it was couched in other terms."

Members had always held meetings every two or three months, usually in Washington, D.C., or Miami, with the OCB director and other government broadcasting officials in attendance. Following San Ramon's appointment board members immediately began to question him and his lieutenants about programming changes that some considered unwise. Several disgruntled OCB employees complained at length about the new management at a PAB meeting held six months after San Roman took office. But when Mas Canosa died (of cancer, at age 56) less than a year after San Roman took over at the OCB, the PAB began conducting business in a chillier climate.

In April 1998 San Roman and his assistants skipped a PAB meeting. The board had requested reports on several programming issues. The three members in attendance indignantly told reporters they were being prevented from carrying out their duties.

Were they ever. On May 20, 1998, then-USIA director Joseph Duffey sent a memo to Coursen and a National Security Council officer. It suggests just how determined the administration was to protect San Roman. Among Duffey's suggestions: The board's information requests should be submitted to his office. And San Roman should not be expected to attend PAB meetings. (Duffey has since resigned; in October the USIA will be dissolved into the State Department.)

Coursen rejected the idea that San Roman and his staff be allowed to bypass the gatherings. From then on, Duffey told reporters that San Roman was justified in boycotting the PAB because the panel had been meeting illegally without a presidentially appointed chairman.

A series of unsuccessful PAB attempts to convene followed. Meetings must be advertised 30 days in advance in the Federal Register and two federal offices must approve all necessary travel vouchers. But scheduling paperwork suddenly became trapped on secretaries' desks; Coursen says he took travel vouchers to several bureaucrats who refused to sign them. "The fact is our charter from Congress is to review the effectiveness of Radio and TV Martí and make reports to the president," Coursen says. "If we can't meet there's not much we can advise the president on. We have been frozen out of the process."

Coursen, a Republican who runs a Washington, D.C. consulting business, knew the board's status was declining as sharply as Radio Martí's ratings. But he complained anyway. In September 1998 Coursen asked for San Roman's dismissal. He cited the OCB director's "multiple management failures and his concerted effort to frustrate the PAB from carrying out its statutory oversight duties." This request followed an evaluation by a panel of journalists that concluded Radio Martí was plagued by a lack of professionalism and objectivity. The administration didn't even bother to issue a brush-off statement in response to Coursen's letter.

In January 1999 the White House released a list of suggested nominees to fill the four PAB vacancies. This included Clinton's choice for chairman, Miami labor leader José "Pepe" Collado. Six months later the president hasn't submitted names to the Senate. "The Clinton administration has found it easier to just cruise instead of making the board effective or changing it," says Richard Nuccio. He asserts the administration has avoided making decisions on Cuba policy.

On June 4, 1999, Coursen decided to ask the Department of Justice for a legal opinion on the administration's reasons for preventing the PAB from meeting. Coursen wondered why other federal advisory boards were continuing to convene. No opinion has been issued.

"It's a Kafkaesque situation," concludes a former Radio Martí employee who asked to remain anonymous. "Except that might be doing Kafka a disservice."

kathy_glasgow@miaminewtimes.com

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