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.

The Diaz-Balart family has been involved in politics for generations, beginning in Cuba. Lincoln's grandfather Rafael was an ally of the dictator Fulgencio Batista, and his father, also named Rafael, became a minister in the Batista administration that took power in a 1952 coup (he also had his own radio show). Fidel Castro, the man who drove Batista and his supporters out of the country with the 1959 revolution, was Lincoln's uncle by marriage during the early Fifties -- Castro's first wife was Mirta Diaz-Balart, sister of Rafael and mother of Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart (Fidelito). Mirta divorced Fidel in 1954. Rafael Diaz-Balart, now 74 years old, spends several months a year in Spain and, when in Miami, hosts a program on Radio Martí. His son is frequently heard on Radio Martí, as well. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's father, Enrique Ros, an amateur historian, also hosted a show on Radio Martí but resigned after complaints that both fathers' programs gave the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Critics of Herminio San Roman accuse him of awarding coveted airtime to Diaz-Balart and Ros to curry favor with their influential offspring. Too much of that airtime, those critics allege, goes to people with mediocre broadcast credentials but sterling political connections. For example Yusimi Sijo, a young woman who had previously cohosted an AM-radio chat show with Rafael Diaz-Balart, now has her own program on Radio Martí; Julio Estorino, active in local Democratic affairs and friend of Radio Martí director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera, currently hosts two programs, panned by a panel of independent journalists, that replicate the opinionated, often strident shows Estorino aired in the past on Miami's anti-Castro AM stations.

A job with Radio Martí, which almost invariably pays more than AM radio, is a big step up for most broadcast talent. (Some of the reporters hired within the past three years are earning almost $60,000, while veterans pull in $75,000 or more per year. San Roman's annual salary is $133,000.) Yet many at the station have never departed from the inimitable Castro-bashing style prevalent in exile-AM broadcasting. "They're still doing their old rinky-dink Calle Ocho shows," in the words of a former OCB employee. And they're talking to a bored Cuban population vastly different from the one they might remember or hear their parents talk about. In fact in 1998 dozens of dissidents throughout the island distributed a packet of letters complaining about the programming changes initiated by San Roman and accusing Radio Martí of broadcasting "a rain of lies and outdated information"; of favoritism in choosing on-air reports; of "creating false situations to increase hostility between the U.S. and Cuba"; and of "fomenting illegal departures from Cuba, making heroes out of those who traffic in people." The packet was distributed to Diaz-Balart, Ros-Lehtinen, CANF, and an anti-Castro group in Puerto Rico; nothing has come of it.

CANF executive director Joe Garcia wants a revitalized Radio MartĂ­ ready for a free Cuba
Steve Satterwhite
CANF executive director Joe Garcia wants a revitalized Radio MartĂ­ ready for a free Cuba
Who could have known that Herminio San Roman would wind up at the center of a broadcasting nuclear war?
Steve Satterwhite
Who could have known that Herminio San Roman would wind up at the center of a broadcasting nuclear war?

Diaz-Balart has insisted in the past that he supports San Roman because the OCB director has carried out major reforms at the Martí stations and is doing a good job. "It's entirely possible that could actually be one of the reasons Lincoln is supporting Herminio," says a friend of San Roman. "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

In an April 8 interview on WLRN-TV(Channel 17), Diaz-Balart deflected a question about the controversy over San Roman by asserting, "Since Herminio San Roman has arrived, the microphones have been open to all Democratic points of view, and because of this, Castro feels more threatened and has intensified his interference of Radio Martí. We're going to get President Bush to find ways to overcome this interference, because Radio Martí has hurt Castro." Radio Martí, a shortwave station, also is transmitted on two AM frequencies from Miami.

Two months ago Diaz-Balart's chief of staff, Ana Carbonell, elaborated on the reasons her boss is so enthusiastic about the Clinton appointee and self-proclaimed "friend of Al Gore." Carbonell called Miami station WQBA (1140-AM) to argue San Roman's case during a show dedicated to the OCB controversy. "No one has been more critical of the Clinton administration," Carbonell said of Diaz-Balart. "But the leadership of Herminio San Roman and Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera is in line with the philosophy of the Republicans; they're open to all points of view."

In February several witnesses in Washington recall a polite but angry discussion between Diaz-Balart and at least two outspoken critics of San Roman. The dispute occurred at the opening of CANF's new $1.8 million Washington office, which ambitiously has been christened the Embassy for a Free Cuba. "[Diaz-Balart] was very confrontational," remarks one attendee. "Obviously if he's taking criticism of Herminio personally, he's in deep."

Diaz-Balart isn't just taking it personally; he is believed to be retaliating against some who don't hold San Roman in the same high esteem. At least three almost-certain candidates for (three different) presidential appointments, all of whom have been critical of the state of affairs at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, suddenly have been dropped from consideration by the Bush administration.

The foundation, despite its longstanding political and ideological kinship with Diaz-Balart, has been lobbying against San Roman, mainly behind closed Republican doors but also in public statements, and questioning Diaz-Balart's motives for backing him. CANF won't endorse anyone to replace San Roman. "Our position is very clear," declares CANF executive director Joe Garcia. "We want Radio and TV Martí to do what they're supposed to do: to transmit accurate and newsworthy information to the people of Cuba. We know it isn't working now, we know what's going on, and we want it fixed. If there is someone living in China under a rock, and he can do the job, that's the guy we want. A lot of brave men and women put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into [the Martí stations], and it's embarrassing to us and embarrassing to the entire Cuban-American community."

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