Voice of a Nation

Radio and TV Martí are supposed to remain above politics and provide Cubans with unbiased news. This is not a joke; it only seems like one.

In the summer of 1997, a Cuban government agent instructed one of his contacts in Miami to exploit a nascent division between two influential segments of the exile community: the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and the new directors of Radio and TV Martí, the U.S. government stations beamed at Cuba. (Correspondence on this subject emerged recently during the ongoing trial in Miami of seven accused Cuban spies.) "The purpose of this project is to increase the level of contradictions between the leaders of Radio and TV Martí with the most conservative members of the CANF in Miami," the Cuban agent advised his charge.

President Bill Clinton had just appointed a Democrat, Miami attorney Herminio San Roman, to head the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which operates the Martí stations. Displeasure with San Roman's sometimes controversial programming and personnel changes -- among them the removal of several veteran employees who also were CANF loyalists -- had been incubating among certain exile interests. Naturally the Cuban government wanted to provoke animosity and paranoia between the groups, which in previous years had been closely aligned. The spy, having already penetrated several anti-Castro organizations, monitored the major players and fed their growing distrust of one another with short, innuendo-laden letters mailed anonymously to Radio Martí and CANF. "It's known," wrote the agent to the spy, "that CANF people are losing ground."

Four years later relations definitely are strained between CANF and the San Roman regime. Radio and TV Martí have become spoils in a power struggle that, for now, CANF appears to be losing. The wealthy anti-Castro powerhouse that once was almost a government unto itself, and that Cuba's media apparatus took great pains to discredit, has undeniably lost ground. Can it really have been the work of la larga mano de Fidel? Surely his feckless spies can't claim much credit, but no matter who or what is responsible, it will be a while before the ultimate winners and losers emerge.

Jorge Mas Canosa, the strongman of Cuban-exile politics, greatly influenced the MartĂ­ stations
JK Yearick
Jorge Mas Canosa, the strongman of Cuban-exile politics, greatly influenced the MartĂ­ stations

Details

For related New Times stories, please refer to Who’s Watching Radio and TV Martí?

In Washington, D.C., the hostilities in Miami look like a typical dispute over a fairly minor presidential appointment. If San Roman had expressed an intention to step down and let a Republican take over, as many Democratic appointees have done recently, no one would be fighting. Only a relatively small number of insiders would have cared who the Bush administration wanted to run Radio and TV Martí.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart, however, would like to inform those insiders and everyone else that San Roman is going to stay right where he is. For the past few years the Republican U.S. representative from Miami -- and the loudest Cuban-American voice in Congress -- has tirelessly championed San Roman and the direction in which he has led the Martí stations, a course that has included a downhill slide in Radio Martí's Cuban listenership. Diaz-Balart continues to lobby for the retention of San Roman, even though several qualified Republicans have declared their candidacy for OCB director (and were rebuffed when they came to Diaz-Balart for his godfatherlike blessing).

This angers many Republican stalwarts who are mystified at Diaz-Balart's intransigence. Perhaps the only possible explanation, observers speculate, is political payback: In exchange for the lawmaker's commitment, Diaz-Balart's allies at the Martí stations give him special access to the airwaves and thus to the people of Cuba. In addition to its official function -- providing Cuba with uncensored information -- Radio Martí has always been seen by the exile community as a vehicle to extend political careers to the island in anticipation of Fidel Castro's fall.

On March 20 the Internet site Crisis at Radio Martí (www.cubapolidata.com/carm/carm.html, which is run by knowledgeable and ferocious critics of the current OCB leadership) announced, "The reason for Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart's support of the disastrous administration of Herminio San Roman has been his political ambition. Sources reveal that Diaz-Balart cut a political deal with Democrats more than a year before the 2000 election." Diaz-Balart, according to the site, promised "full support and political protection" for San Roman and his closest allies "in exchange for Democratic support of a cabinet level (Secretary of Labor) appointment of Diaz-Balart...."

Regardless of its accuracy, the tidbit reflects a broader conflict over a far more important job than overseeing the $22 million annual Radio and TV Martí budget. It's about the right to be the strongman, to lead Cuba's government-in-exile and perhaps soon -- no matter how unacceptable Cubans on the island find the notion -- a government in Havana.

Jorge Mas Canosa, former chairman of CANF and founder of Radio and TV Martí, was that strongman. Mas never worked on the staff of the OCB but served in the appointed unpaid position of chairman of the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting. Nevertheless Mas was heavily involved in behind-the-scenes operation of the Martís until his final months; he died of cancer in late November 1997 at the age of 57. Charismatic and charming, at times ruthless and dictatorial, he was a multimillionaire businessman and the most dynamic expatriate Cuban leader exile since Jose Martí. He was compared both favorably and unfavorably to Fidel Castro, and it was no secret that he and his followers dreamed of the day Mas would return to Cuba as president. But unlike many of his generation, he first became a skilled participant in the U.S. political system. He formed CANF in 1981, patterning it after Israel's well-organized Washington lobbying forces. He was close to presidents, prime ministers, and politicians of all stripes who courted the favor of the Cuban-exile community he represented.

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