Incessant Static

Every year millions of your dollars are pumped into Radio and TV Martí. What do you get in return?

Even in Miami, where Cuba conspiracy theories grow tall and thick like sugar cane at harvest time, some of Salvador Lew's Miami listeners were surprised when he warned of Fidel Castro's latest subversive campaign.

Lew, director of the United States government's Radio and TV Martí, appeared on Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710) last month to talk about the changes he's making at the taxpayer-funded stations, which are broadcast to Cuba. Radio Martí, Lew told listeners of the evening talk show Mesa Redonda, is now so popular on the island (TV Martí has virtually no viewers) that el comandante en jefe must attempt to discredit the operation.

"It was immediately evident," affirmed the 73-year-old Lew, a former friend and schoolmate of Castro, "that the order had come from the Cuban government to attack Radio Martí, and me as well." Pausing for a verbal nod of the head, he added, "I've been told that Fidel's brother [Raul] is also involved in the campaign against us." That wasn't unbelievable, since the Cuban government had indeed blasted some recent Martí news coverage and in a few weeks would be harshly accusing Radio Martí of causing an international incident when a group of young Cubans, evidently encouraged by provocatively edited comments made on Radio Martí, gate-crashed the Mexican embassy in Havana.

But when Lew attacked critics within his own Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which runs the Martí stations, the brief remarks instantly provoked rumblings from Miami to Washington to New York. "Here too they started to criticize me," Lew acknowledged, referring to Martí employees here in Miami. "That doesn't worry me, because when you have a clear conscience you're not worried about criticism or fabrications or anything. But it's very clear to me that [the critics] receive their orders from Havana. What they are doing is called moral assassination. That's how it works. It's the same method used by the castristas there and here."

Lew didn't name names, but he didn't have to. Those remarks were discussed heatedly throughout the small world of federal broadcasting, with most observers dismissing the accusations as attempts to deflect attention from mounting discontent at Radio and TV Martí.

But in Miami, comments like Lew's are normally taken as threats. One of the targeted employees half-joked: "I mean, what are your chances of having a coffee at Versailles now?" The landmark Cuban restaurant and gathering place on Calle Ocho is perhaps less a den of intrigue these days than it was during the bombings and shootings within the exile community of the Sixties and Seventies. Still, to be branded a Castro agent in this town can be devastating. Never mind if there's no proof.

Lew, appointed to his $132,000-per-year job by President George W. Bush this past July, was supposed to be the savior of what had become essentially a rogue operation. Independent investigations in the past had questioned the professionalism and balance of Radio Martí's news and programming, and the government's own audience surveys showed listenership plummeting in Cuba.

The white-haired, genial Lew is a respected political moderate, a 41-year veteran of Miami's AM radio business, and a living historical treasure. His nomination to the highly political post -- after the forced resignation of a Bill Clinton appointee -- was happily received among South Florida's Cuban exiles as well as by Gov. Jeb Bush, the man who will need continued close relations with that community in his upcoming re-election campaign.

After Lew assumed control of the stations, it took him only about a month to begin drawing fire on several fronts. His makeover goals were laudable, and in some aspects Radio Martí has undeniably improved. But even a number of the people who backed Lew most heartily now admit to being distressed by the administrative and financial turmoil over which he is presiding. And the Martí stations still largely look and sound more like a Little Havana meeting of Los Municipios de Cuba en Exilio than a credible U.S. government information source. Among the critiques:

•Lew has already used up the OCB's $25 million fiscal-year budget, even raiding specially dedicated funds, to pay an unprecedented number of freelancers -- without firing the virtually untouchable permanent employees. Many of these independent contractors are longtime personal friends of Lew, and some have been turned down in the past for employment at the Martí stations.

•He has increased the presence on Radio Martí of el exilio's most prominent, sometimes inflammatory, hard-line anti-Castro spokesmen and politically powerful commentators. For example, Radio Mambí's general manager Armando Perez-Roura, a mesmerizing orator and arguably the king of exile radio, is heard in Cuba every day thanks to Mambí's 50,000-watt AM signal. But in addition to that, he is heard for four hours and five minutes every week on Radio Martí. Also included on the government's program list: Rafael Diaz-Balart, the father of outspoken Cuban-American Republican Congressman Lincoln.

•Soon after Lew became director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, he disbanded the long-standing editorial-review committee. As a result, none of the new freelance programs has had to pass any independent scrutiny.

•Two audience surveys released this past January show overwhelming acceptance in Havana of the "new" Radio Martí. So overwhelming, in fact, many skeptics have trouble believing them. The listenership figures in both surveys are in the 60-percent to 90-percent range, the station's highest in 15 years. They come after an official U.S. study in August 2001 concluded the Radio Martí audience throughout Cuba was at an all-time low of five percent.

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