Incessant Static

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

•Lew inherited a political snake pit, but some of his administrative moves have made the environment even more venomous. Already four women have filed sexual-discrimination complaints against him with the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the OCB's oversight agency. Two of the women were demoted from positions of authority and replaced by men whom they allege are less qualified. All the women state in affidavits that they have been subjected to demeaning remarks and inferior job assignments. In addition, other OCB workers have contacted federal authorities alleging civil-rights violations, apparently prompting two recent visits to the OCB from investigators in Washington.


Cuban author Norberto Fuentes, who was among the Havana elite before defecting to the U.S. in 1994, is one of numerous observers who believe hope for the Martí stations is lost as long as Washington puts the Office of Cuba Broadcasting at the disposal of South Florida exiles. "Radio Martí has become for ... [U.S. presidential] administrations the carrot attached to the stick with which they can entice the Cubans in Miami, the objective being above all to obtain those important votes in South Florida," Fuentes opines on his Website (www.norbertofuentes.com). "[Radio Martí is no longer] an instrument of U.S. foreign policy, which was the objective of its creation."

Salvador Lew promises to "broadcast love to the Cuban people"
Steve Satterwhite
Salvador Lew promises to "broadcast love to the Cuban people"
Salvador Lew promises to "broadcast love to the Cuban people"
Steve Satterwhite
Salvador Lew promises to "broadcast love to the Cuban people"

U.S. foreign policy, including its Cuba policies, lately has been subject to rethinking. Now facing a $46 billion federal budget deficit and the prospect of reordering its economic priorities, Congress will soon decide where the Martí stations will stand in the newer world order. The White House has repeatedly expressed its determination to maintain a hard line toward Castro and to find ways to overcome the jamming of Radio and TV Martí, thus allowing the U.S. to more effectively reach the Cuban people. But the Clinton administration vowed the same thing. The technical and political obstacles to reforming the Martí stations have always proved greater than the will to change.

The proposed 2003-2004 budget now before Congress provides almost $26 million for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, with $15.8 million of that going to Radio Martí and $10.2 million to TV. This is more than the $25 million the OCB received in 2002-2003. The Martí stations are fortunate because many other federal programs stand to be cut back drastically; however, if the administration is serious about making real improvements in its broadcasts to Cuba, that will take more money.

And it will take even more technical expertise and political will to make TV Martí the tool of democratic change its supporters insist it can be. The television station has been seen by virtually no one since it first went on the air in 1990 (Radio Martí started five years earlier). The Castro government has always maintained that the broadcasts, transmitted in predawn hours from a blimp over Cudjoe Key, violate international treaties forbidding the use of other nations' airspace. The UHF signal is easily jammed. Thus nearly every year there is a move in Congress to eliminate funding for the station. And nearly every year attempts to mess with TV Martí are squashed by the tiny but influential Cuban-American delegation. Now, however, a growing number of Republicans are pushing for normalization of relations with Cuba, and combined with the present economic uncertainties, the pressure to eliminate TV Martí may be stronger than ever.

But it's the 24-hour Radio Martí (broadcast on short-wave and at 1180 AM) that Cubans can more readily receive, and it's Radio Martí that everyone is fighting over.


Soon after Lew moved into the director's office in the OCB's complex northwest of Miami International Airport, he freed up much more airtime on Radio Martí for news. He scheduled a total of five hours of news in one- or two-hour blocks scattered throughout every weekday, with bulletins at the half-hour. Previously the time allotted for newscasts had totaled less than two hours per weekday.

Lew wanted quality as well as quantity. For several years the professionalism of Radio Martí's news and other programming had been lambasted by independent and government analysts. The content of the current Martí broadcasts is somewhat limited in scope and perspective -- much of it has been pulled off newswires and Internet services, including the independent news associations proliferating throughout Cuba, not all of which are verifiably factual. A generally positive aspect of the news programming is the participation of many independent journalists on the island, as well as Cuban activists newly arrived in Miami.

The coverage of news within the United States is limited to issues and events directly relating to the island, especially reactions of exile groups to whatever bad news is coming out of Cuba at the moment. As with all of Miami's AM exile radio stations, good news about Cuba does not exist on Radio Martí. Other news without a specific Cuban connection but that would be of interest to many people -- the sex scandals in the Catholic church, for example -- receive little attention. But now there are also regular dispatches from Washington, New York, and the United Nations, and a few foreign posts in Europe and Latin America.

The expanded news broadcasts were applauded by almost everyone except the newsroom employees who were reassigned to make way for squads of new contract, or freelance, workers. In his quest to improve Radio Martí and to a lesser extent TV Martí, Lew has hired an unprecedented number of freelancers: at least 40, approximately the same number as permanent employees, swelling the freelance ranks to about 125. (OCB employs a total of approximately 200 people.) The ostensibly temporary workers have strained Radio Martí's facilities and finances to the limit. "We've had some bad [OCB directors]," remarks a senior employee who doesn't want to be identified, "but this takes the cake. They remove people from their positions to replace them with friends on contract. The waste and abuse was rampant in the past; now it's immoral. I had to go through a series of investigations to get my ID, whereas these people get them in a few days, and they're using the government's facilities, they get the computer passwords -- they've even taken all the parking."

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