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.

When George W. Bush was campaigning in South Florida this past August, he told an audience at Florida International University the government needs to "revitalize Radio and TV Martí." That remark, reflecting one of several issues CANF representatives had lobbied the candidate to address in his speech, was seized upon by Martí-watchers as a sign of the Republicans' desire to make the broadcasts a more important part of U.S. policy toward Cuba. San Roman's opponents took it as a sign that a Republican administration would be disposed to remove him as director of the OCB. Now it looks as though the foundation will have a more difficult time wresting changes from the Bush White House. "I think the foundation's influence has receded, and Lincoln's has grown, although I don't know whether it's grown that much. I don't think [the foundation] has got the clout he has right now," admits Wayne Smith, the senior fellow at the Center for International Policyin Washington and former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. In 1996 Smith also was the target of a defamation lawsuit brought by the foundation, a case in which he eventually prevailed. "There's nothing I like to see more than these guys [Diaz-Balart and the foundation] fighting among themselves," he quips.

After George W. Bush became president, several reliable sources came to believe that his brother Jeb and other influential Republicans, including Florida Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas, were supporting Antonio Navarro for the OCB directorship. Navarro, who headed the OCB from 1990 until 1993, when George Bush, Sr., was president, also is a former member of the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting. (Navarro's successor, former Miami television executive Richard Lobo, resigned in 1996, and an interim director served until the appointment of San Roman, who played a major role in Clinton's Florida re-election campaign.) A spokeswoman for Gov. Jeb Bush explains her boss is "not endorsing any particular candidate at this time." (At least Bush's office returned phone calls; the three Cuban-American U.S. representatives -- Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez -- who have been perhaps the strongest Congressional backers of the Martís and San Roman, didn't respond to numerous inquiries.)

Ros-Lehtinen has long stood with Diaz-Balart behind San Roman. Lately, though, Ros-Lehtinen has made some effort to distance herself from San Roman and despite writing letters of support for the three leading pretenders to the throne, now seems to have more emphatically endorsed Salvador Lew, a veteran Miami broadcaster and current member of the President's Advisory Board. Lew also sought the blessing of prominent local businessman (and Jeb Bush friend) Armando Codina. At first, Codina recalls, he was willing to informally vouch for Lew. "I got a call from Salvador Lew, who I think is a fine gentleman, and I did call Al Cardenas on his behalf," Codina says. "I found out to my surprise this thing is a nuclear war. At stake here is what and who gets heard in Cuba. So I'm going to let the people who get the big bucks to worry about these things decide for themselves."

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?
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?

Eduardo Palmer, a Cuba-born producer of television documentaries and newsreels for 40 years, is another top candidate for the OCB job. Palmer says Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen both backed him four years ago, when San Roman eventually was chosen to head the OCB. This year, assuming he had a better chance with a Republican administration, Palmer again contacted Diaz-Balart for his support. "He said he would like to, but he was supporting San Roman," Palmer recalls. "I find it completely unfair, unjust, and unexplainable, because when San Roman got the job, he boasted, “I don't know anything about [broadcasting], but I'm a friend of Al Gore.' Ratings have dropped from almost 70 percent to 7 percent. Mr. San Roman is a very nice and decent person, and if he were very efficient and professional in communications media and doing a good job, then I think it wouldn't matter if he stays. But he doesn't know anything about communications media."

The trouble with that reasoning is it makes too much sense. In the end the OCB director must serve the political interests of those who put him there. It's not in any president's interest to allow the Miami exiles to dictate Cuba policy, but neither does he want to offend them. So, as Bill Clinton did, it's safer to do as little as possible with the Martí stations. George W. Bush can talk about revitalizing Cuba broadcasting, but actually accomplishing it could have explosive consequences; he always has to walk the line between the growing trend toward reopening relations with Cuba and the uncompromising stance of the anti-communist purists. "The Republicans are much better at pretending they don't feel like the Democrats felt," says the former Clinton administration Latin-American-affairs expert. "The Republicans are going to say things, but they're not going to do anything, because you can't do anything. If you do something, you're going to have a migration crisis, and George Bush doesn't want people pouring into Florida any more than Clinton did. Nobody wants to talk about this. They pretend it's going to be different, but [Cuban-Americans] are going to be frustrated all over again with the Republicans."

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