Broadcast Blunder

When the feds snatched Elian, Radio Martí should have been first with the news to Cuba. Instead its director quit in protest and chaos reigned.

In late June or early July, apparently before voting on whether to accept or reject San Roman's appeal, the Broadcasting Board of Governors agreed to meet with the three Cuban-American members of Congress -- Diaz-Balart, Ros-Lehtinen, and Menendez -- who have staunchly supported the current Martí management. (The fathers of both Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen were contracted by San Roman three years ago to present programs on Radio Martí; Ros-Lehtinen's father has since resigned.)

According to sources familiar with Radio Martí operations, the three lawmakers not only defended Rodriguez-Tejera before a BBG committee formed to look into the Elian matter, but also met privately with one of the board members, prominent Washington lobbyist and Republican political consultant Tom Korologos. They were furious over the board's proposed disciplinary actions. Those with knowledge of the meeting say the lawmakers reminded Korologos that Congress could always cut BBG appropriations, and threatened to call Capitol Hill hearings to investigate the board's actions.

“They chewed his ass out,” relates a source close to Radio Martí. In an August 4 article in El Nuevo Herald, Diaz-Balart complained that the board was trying to censor Radio Martí. (Repeated phone calls to Diaz-Balart, Ros-Lehtinen, and Menendez received no response.)

The lawmakers' bellicose defense of a largely discredited Radio Martí has provoked consternation on all political sides. “It's a station that had 70 percent listenership [in Cuba] and now has barely 6 percent,” sighs a conservative Cuban-American activist who wants to remain anonymous because of his publicly cordial relationship with the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. “It used to be an instrument of foreign policy; now it's an instrument of local politics. It's sort of like, What the hell is going on? Everybody in Miami is employed by [Radio Martí], including Diaz-Balart's father and Ros-Lehtinen's father.”

Using Cuban slang for a do-nothing patronage job, the source concludes, “Botella is a good word for this.”

As Cuba-policy fights go, Radio and TV Martí don't elicit the attention provoked by big-money issues like the trade embargo or agricultural and medical sales to the island. Thus political observers wonder at the willingness of Cuban-American members of Congress to expend so much political capital defending Radio Martí and San Roman. Two principal theories are floated: San Roman guaranteed the loyalty of Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen by hiring their fathers; Diaz-Balart wants to be the future president of Cuba and craves the on-air access the Martí stations give him. (In a special holiday program last month, for example, Rodriguez-Tejera featured interviews with two generations of Diaz-Balarts.) The lawmakers themselves have offered few clues about their motivations.

Regardless the BBG is not expected to back down on its decision to discipline Rodriguez-Tejera. His fate then will be up to the International Broadcasting Bureau, the office that implements personnel reassignments. A transfer order could come any day, but since federal employment is subject to so many complicated rules, it might not be easy to line up the right job for him. His critics are hoping for a move to Washington, or even to a different broadcast service in another country. If he's allowed to stay in Miami, his foes warn, he'll continue to exert the real power at Radio Martí -- “controlling from behind the curtain,” as one employee puts it. The Cuban thing all over again.

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