Incessant Static

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

According to some veteran contract workers, the new arrivals have also taken much of the money. For instance Enrique Patterson, one of the few black people appearing on any Martí program, had his half-hour program fee cut from $100 to $85. "I'd do my show for free because I am so committed to the situation in Cuba," declares Patterson, a Miami-Dade schoolteacher and occasional El Nuevo Herald columnist. "But I can't understand why they pay some new guy $200 a program and another girl $400 a program. I consider it offensive. They might be professionals, but at the same time they're newcomers and I have been on the air more than five years. Why is this? Do you have to be white and a friend of the director?"

Lew angrily denies that race or friendship determine pay. But how does Patterson's $85 compare to the $220 per half-hour paid to Olga Connor, a writer for El Nuevo Herald who recently launched a twice-weekly hourlong arts show? Or $275 per hour for psychic and poet Sassy Alfaro, a friend of Lew, who now hosts a twice-daily weekend program about Santería? In addition Rolando Espinosa, longtime business partner of convicted felon Demetrio Perez, Jr., and former school board member, makes $125 per half-hour show about prerevolutionary Cuban history.

There's one form of discrimination no one can accuse Lew of practicing: ageism. He's put senior citizens, most of whom happen to be his close associates, in top positions throughout the OCB. Lazaro Asencio, 75 years old and Lew's friend from their childhood in Las Villas province, was recently named news director, a position that pays $80,000 per year. In Cuba Asencio was a commander in Castro's rebel army who later fought against the communist regime.

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"

Asencio's right-hand man is his friend Agustin Alles, who was Radio Martí's news director from 1991 until 1995, when he was transferred to the assignment desk following repeated allegations of incompetence, bias, and retaliation. The 75-year-old Alles, like Asencio, was in the thick of revolutionary activity in Cuba during the Fifties.

Asencio, Alles, and Lew -- all veterans of Miami's anti-Castro radio industry -- now make the news decisions at Radio Martí. Despite decades in the U.S., neither Alles nor Asencio is fluent in English, a liability when supervising news coverage in the U.S. and Europe. Lew insists it's more important for him to work with people he's comfortable around. He has always remained loyal to his friends, he says -- at least everyone but Fidel Castro. Lew has maintained ties with a fascinating collection of former Cuban ministers and revolutionary heroes, artists, and intellectuals. He's close to Fidel's younger sister Juanita, a Miami resident, and other Castro family members.

In Havana Lew was an attorney at a firm that once represented American Mafioso Santo Trafficante. He went into exile in 1960. Less than two years later, working as a show host at WQBA-AM (1140), he was informed that Russian ships bearing missiles were docking in Cuba. Lew broke the news weeks before the Kennedy administration acknowledged the Russian presence 90 miles from U.S. shores -- the start of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Lew continued at WQBA for another eleven years, eventually becoming news editor. From 1976 to 1978 he served as assistant Dade County manager, then went back to radio. He's best known for his lunchtime talk show, Peña Azul, which he broadcast live for fourteen years from a table at the now-defunct Centro Vasco restaurant on Calle Ocho. For three years, until he assumed his OCB job, he and his various invited guests lunched and philosophized amid the bustle at the Rancho Luna restaurant on SW 22nd Avenue.

During the Eighties Lew lobbied unsuccessfully to be appointed to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but in 1989 President George Bush named him to the bipartisan President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting, a body created by Congress to monitor the content and technical viability of Radio and TV Martí. From this board, which had been dormant for three years, Lew stepped into the OCB directorship.

Today, more than five years after the Martí stations moved from the dignified bureaucratic halls of Washington, D.C., to the Third World hothouse of Miami, it's undeniable that the relocation did -- as critics of the move warned -- transform the stations into exile mouthpieces. A Washington source familiar with the Martí stations relates a comment he heard from an elderly black Cuban who immigrated to Miami a few years ago. "We were at the funeral in Miami of Willy Portuondo, a legendary Cuban sportscaster and one of the few blacks who ever worked at Radio Martí," the source relates. "I was talking to his friend, a very sophisticated guy, and he just looked at me and said, I stopped listening to Radio Martí [in Cuba], because if I want to hear Radio Mambí, I'll listen to the real thing, not an imitation.' He said, [Radio Martí] has to provide credible news and it doesn't.'"

Indeed Mambí's influence over Radio Martí is unmistakable. For one thing, a huge proportion of Radio Martí's reporters and editors used to work at Mambí or WQBA-AM (formerly La Cubanísima). Another Mambí touch is the five-minute commentary, once per week during a regularly scheduled newscast, by Armando Perez-Roura. An hourlong edited version of one of Perez-Roura's programs on Mambí, Peña Mambisa, also runs four times every weekend on Radio Martí. Perez-Roura doesn't get paid for his Martí airtime, although Jesus Garcia, a Mambí employee who produces Peña Mambisa and transports the edited tapes from Mambí to Martí, bills the government $175 per week for that service.

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