A Legacy of Reason
Last week voters in Colorado's Second Congressional District elected a new representative to replace David Skaggs, a respected Democrat who is retiring after serving twelve years in the House of Representatives. Ordinarily the departure of a congressman whose district is more than 1500 miles away would pass without much notice in Miami. That would be unfortunate.
Skaggs deserves notice and credit for doing something no member of Congress from South Florida, from either party, has had the courage to do: publicly declare that TV Marti is a farce and that funding for it should cease. "It is, by any fair and objective analysis, a joke," Skaggs offers during a recent interview. "And it is all the more hilarious -- or offensive -- because of the high soberness of those who attempt to defend it."
Those defenders of TV Marti, and of its sister operation Radio Marti, have been at odds with Skaggs since 1993. That was the year Skaggs, as a newly appointed member of the House Appropriations Committee, was snooping around in hopes of cutting wasteful government spending and stumbled upon the budgets for both the Martis. "I was looking for places to save some money that wasn't being spent well in order to shift it to areas that seemed to be of greater need," he recalls.
At the time, Radio Marti's signal was not only weak and ineffective, but Skaggs says he had serious concerns that the station's hiring practices and programming were being controlled by Cuban exiles in Miami, most notably the late Jorge Mas Canosa, head of the influential Cuban American National Foundation and chairman of the presidential advisory board overseeing both stations. So in 1993 Skaggs set out to eliminate funding for the Martis and walked right into the buzz saw of the Cuban-American lobby, which marshalled its forces to maintain funding for the stations. And as a warning to Skaggs and any other representatives who might try to mess with the Martis in the future, the stations' supporters attempted to cut from the federal budget projects in Skaggs's Colorado district. Leading the charge was Miami's Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who had just been elected to the House.
Skaggs was astonished by the onslaught; he commented at the time: "It's a set of tactics I have not encountered in politics before. I have encountered my share of hardball, but it's a little more brazen than I have seen." Time has not changed that view.
"There has always been a defensiveness on the part of the proponents of the Martis that, in my mind, [reflects] the lack of merit of the whole operation," he says. "I think they well know that this is a fairly tenuously justifiable operation. And so the very vehemence with which they launch into opposition whenever challenged reveals how fragile they realize this proposition is."
Though it would have been politically expedient for him to drop his opposition the following year, Skaggs, a former Marine captain who volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War, was not about to back down from what he believed was a blatant waste of taxpayer money. And so for each of the past six years Skaggs has been one of the few members of Congress willing to criticize the stations, which are operated by the Voice of America, a division of the U.S. Information Agency.
Over time he has seen improvements made to Radio Marti, and as a result he no longer campaigns to cut its budget. "As so often happens," he says with apparent pride, "things change when they come under scrutiny."
Skaggs more recently concentrated his attention on TV Marti, a program, he says, that falls into a "relatively small class of truly idiotic things" funded by Congress. Nobody is watching TV Marti, according to Skaggs, who also sits on the House Select Committee on Intelligence. And yet taxpayers have spent more than $100 million since 1990 to transmit a signal that is easily jammed by the Cuban government.
"It is as outrageous a waste of money today as it was when I first learned about it, and that remains galling," he says. "I was then and I remain infuriated by the corruption of United States policy that is inherent in our Cuba policy generally, and in this aspect of it in particular. And by corruption I mean the untoward influence of a relatively small segment of the population in Florida and the money that small segment of the population brings to bear, and how it distorts the policy choices this government makes."
Skaggs believes our current policy toward Cuba is "hugely counterproductive to our long-term national interests" and argues that the president should use our improved relations with Vietnam as a road map when dealing with Cuba. The recent apprehension of Cuban spies in Miami hasn't changed his view. "Let's try to have some coherent and consistent attitudes toward these sorts of things," he says. "Nobody would suggest that we ought to break off relations with Russia because Russia still conducts espionage against this country. Nor would we do it with China or even some of our friends who do it."
This year's floor debate over funding for TV Marti was unusually spirited, with more House members jumping into the fray than ever before. "I don't know if it was because it was my last year," says Skaggs, "but it was certainly more robust than it has been in the past."
As he has done every year, Skaggs first tried to strike the funding for TV Marti in committee. But this year the chairman of the Appropriations Committee used a parliamentary maneuver to block him. Skaggs says he felt particularly betrayed because the chairman's efforts came "at the insistence of one of my colleagues on the committee." He hinted that it was a fellow Democrat, but would not name the person.
A review of Appropriations Committee membership offers one immediate suspect: Carrie Meek, who has consistently supported funding for the Martis and who, in recent years, has formed an alliance with the Cuban-American community in order to gain their help on issues involving Haitian refugees.
Stymied at the committee level, Skaggs pulled his own parliamentary two-step on the House floor, surprising his colleagues by introducing -- several hours before anyone was expecting it -- an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have cut TV Marti's $9.4 million budget. Skaggs says it was the only way he could guarantee a public debate.
As part of his presentation, he held up a photo of a television set tuned to TV Marti. The image on the screen was nothing more than wavy lines. "We had a lot of fun with the photograph," he laughs.
Supporters of TV Marti quickly scrambled to the floor and launched into their usual hyperbolic defense. "I've gotten used to it," he says, "so I'm no longer amazed."
After nearly two hours of debate, Skaggs's amendment was rejected; 251 members voted to continue TV Marti funding while 172 voted to eliminate it. Every representative from South Florida voted to maintain funding, including Meek, Diaz-Balart, Alcee Hastings, Clay Shaw, Peter Deutsch, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Although Skaggs may be disappointed he wasn't able to abolish TV Marti before leaving Congress, he finds comfort in knowing that he leaves behind a legacy of reason concerning the issue, a legacy worthy of emulation by our own elected officials.
But judge for yourself. Below are excerpts from this year's debate over TV Marti.
MR. DAVID SKAGGS: Mr. Chairman, this amendment makes a very small addition to the Marshals Service fund and deletes $9.4 million in funding for TV Marti for a very simple reason: It is a complete waste of money.
For members who may not be familiar with this program, I will first try to explain the logical reasons that we ought to end TV Marti, but let me just acknowledge at the outset some advice that I got from a very informed staff person over at the United States Information Agency. He said, "Congressman, you know, you're trying to use logic to battle a cartoon." So if some of this seems a little bit surreal as we go along, that perhaps will help members understand what is going on.
Mr. Chairman, TV Marti is broadcast out of a balloon hung over the Florida Keys most weekdays from 3:30 a.m. until 8:00 a.m., and it goes to, or tries to go to, the greater Havana area. But since TV Marti began broadcasting in 1990, virtually nobody has seen it because, sad to say, the Castro government is very successful in jamming it. To date we have spent over $110 million, real money, on this failed program. I think it follows, quite logically, that since nobody sees this TV program, it really can make no contribution to bringing freedom and democracy to Cuba, a goal which we all share.
On the other hand, this amendment does not touch Radio Marti, the sister program of TV Marti, which does get through, just as Radio Free Europe got through despite jamming by the Soviets during the Cold War. My amendment has no effect on Radio Marti. During the Cold War, radio transmissions had a significant audience in the Eastern Bloc because it is relatively easy to defeat jamming of radio. Television signals, on the other hand, are exclusively line of sight, easy to jam, and as a practical matter there really is no alternative frequency. TV Marti's broadcasts have been jammed from the beginning. At least seven, count them, seven objective studies by people without an ax to grind in this have been done since 1991. Not one of them has found any significant audience for TV Marti.
We should have disbanded this operation back in 1994 after an advisory panel found there was no significant audience. Instead the backers of this program came up with, I think, the slightly nutty idea that if only we changed from a VHF, very high frequency, signal to an ultrahigh frequency, UHF signal, that that would solve the problem. We spent $1.7 million doing that, knowing full well that it would be even easier to jam the UHF signal than the VHF. All it takes to do that is for some signal to be transmitted on the same frequency as TV Marti with a comparable field strength. Our own National Association of Broadcasters has told us it requires little more than a 100-watt transmitter and an off-the-shelf antenna and that could deliver enough field strength in a 30-mile diameter to be effective.
Here is a map of the greater Havana area. The hash marks on the overlay indicate a 30-mile diameter. This is the area that can be jammed effectively with a 100-watt transmitter. It takes about 200 watts of power to yield the 100-watt signal. Members can see there is a little bit of area that is not quite covered, so maybe we need two jammers for a total of 400 watts. So for four light bulbs' worth of power, sad to say, the Castro government is able to completely kill this TV signal coming from the balloon over the Keys. While he is spending literally nickels and dimes on electricity to do this, we are spending about $25,000 a day wasting taxpayers' money sending invisible television to nowhere.
Nonetheless we did this VHF to UHF conversion and it was really no surprise that the signal still did not get through. Let me just give my colleagues some visual evidence that was elicited by one of our own government technicians who went down to Cuba to check on what was going on technically. This is a picture of the TV Marti logo when it came on the air on Channel 64 while this USIA technician was monitoring signals. A couple of minutes later, once the jamming signal was put on the air by Castro's people, this was the jammed picture that came through. Likewise, sometimes we use a different channel. This is what Channel 50 of TV Marti looks like when the jamming is in place. There has been a survey done by the U.S. Interests Section at the Swiss Embassy where we have our presence in Havana showing that virtually no one sees this new UHF signal.
Now, there is some suggestion that this is still a bargain. Let me just tell members, compared to the costs of our other international broadcasting efforts, TV Marti is not only a waste of money because the signal does not get through but it's also a very, very rich program in terms of our costs of producing an hour that we put on the air.
As members can see, for each hour of programming by comparable efforts, Radio Marti 8 to 11 employees; Radio Free Asia, 8 to 15; Voice of America, 1.3. A real bargain. Just to give members a television comparison, C-SPAN, about 9 employees. TV Marti, in order to get one hour of programming on the air, takes 40.6 employees.
There are other costs as well. Right now we have one balloon flying over the Keys for this purpose and for air interdiction, drug interdiction purposes. The National Security Council has decided that we will risk a hole in our air defenses by letting this one aerostat balloon instead be used on TV Marti. As I said, we have already spent $110 million on this. If we fully fund it again, we will have gone to about $120 million. This is simply a classic example of a failed program. Supporters of this program say it will be a propaganda victory for the Castro regime if we eliminate it. I have got to believe that it is a much bigger victory for the American taxpayer if we stop this kind of waste.
MR. JAMES MORAN (D-VIRGINIA): Mr. Chairman, I thank the gentleman from Colorado (Mr. Skaggs). It just boggles the mind how with all the priorities that we have in this country, that we would be spending millions and millions of dollars to maintain a system that serves no real function other than perhaps a political one.
It really is a scandal. I think the only reason that it continues is that most taxpayers just have no idea that this is going on. They have no idea of the facts. They trust the Congress is going to do the right thing with their tax money. But I cannot imagine any objective observer, any average taxpayer would want their money wasted in such a scandalous fashion as it is with TV Marti, where there is no audience, where there is an enormous amount of overhead, and where no advertiser would ever purchase time because there is no audience to this thing. And yet we are spending millions and millions and millions of dollars, apparently for some political purpose but certainly not for any objective public policy purpose.
MR. HAROLD ROGERS (R-KENTUCKY): Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition. The gentleman from Colorado, a friend and member of our subcommittee who has served so well in this Congress and in our subcommittee, has led a long and determined effort to kill funding for TV Marti.
This is the most recent chapter of a long book, and the gentleman is to be commended for, if nothing else, his persistence and a well-reasoned argument. This year the bill includes $9.4 million for TV Marti, which represents a continuation of just basic funding. The gentleman's amendment would delete the entire amount.
Despite the continuing difficulties that the gentleman cites in TV Marti, terminating this program, Mr. Chairman, is not the answer. Termination is not the answer. Providing accurate and objective news, as we know, helped bring about change in the former Soviet Union as well as Eastern Europe, and we are now broadcasting, as we all know, for the first time into Asia and other parts of the world. It can play the same role in China and in Cuba as well.
We are all frustrated by the difficulties of reaching a large audience with TV Marti, but we should not let those difficulties bar us or prevent us from trying. I, for one, am unwilling to give up and give in to Fidel Castro. Deleting the money for TV Marti is running up the white flag to Fidel Castro. Mr. Chairman, I do not possess a white flag. We have a duty to press for more freedom in the prison that lies so close to our shores and with such strong historical ties with the United States, so I support continued funding.
MS. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (R-MIAMI): Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to the amendment offered by the gentleman from Colorado. Mr. Chairman, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to seek to receive and to impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. So for almost four decades the people of Cuba have been denied this basic, universally recognized right. They have been denied this right by the Castro regime.
The Cuban dictatorship realized from the onset that knowledge empowers, and it knew that if it controlled the flow of information, it would be able to manipulate the Cuban people and forever imprison them in a parallel world created by Castro's lies and twisted propaganda. Thus, if it were to sustain its campaign against the United States, against American newspapers, magazines, and broadcasts, it had to be prohibiting all the information at all cost.
So, Mr. Chairman, the people of Cuba have lived in absolute darkness about the U.S. commitment to freedom and democracy in their island nation until the first broadcast of Radio Marti was transmitted into Cuba. Another milestone was crossed when TV Marti began its transmissions in 1990. Do we want to allow the veil of silence to envelope Cuba once again? Cutting off funding for TV Marti would do just that. TV Marti challenges Castro's hold by educating the Cuban people about our policies in the United States and about American society. It is critical to fulfilling the mission that USIA has of explaining and supporting American foreign policy and of promoting U.S. national interests through a wide range of overseas information programs.
TV Marti offers the U.S. government our capacity to reach out to the Cuban people on two fronts. It is an integral component of a multifaceted strategy to bring freedom and democracy to the last bastion of communism in our Western Hemisphere, and it is also a conveyor of truth as well as its servant. Thus, eliminating TV Marti would place truth at a significant disadvantage against the venom that is spread daily by the Castro regime.
We have heard arguments from opponents of TV Marti that it does not reach the Cuban people because of jamming by the regime. Well, copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that I quoted from earlier and the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, those documents are frequently confiscated by the Castro regime. Does that mean that we should stop trying to send these valuable international documents to the dissidents, to the growing opposition, to the general population? Religious groups tell us that they routinely try to smuggle bibles into Cuba. Castro's thugs block their distribution. So we should stop sending bibles to the enslaved Cuban people? Of course not.
TV Marti is reaching the Cuban people. One new viewer means that one more person will question the situation in Cuba. One more viewer means one more person that has escaped Castro's intellectual imprisonment. Castro used to very massively jam Radio Marti, and the opponents on the other side worked very hard to get the funding out of Radio Marti. Well, now the signal is going through, the technology was improved. So now they say we have got to block TV Marti. But if this body passes the Skaggs amendment ... the House of Representatives would be awarding a tremendous victory that we would be bestowing upon the oppressors, while at the same time depriving the enslaved people of Cuba of a critical tool that we can give them, which is unbiased, free information. It would essentially cut off the flow to Cuba, as the dictatorship would be able to concentrate its resources on blocking the remaining broadcast, and the result would be an even more strengthened Castro regime.
MR. JOSE SERRANO (D-NEW YORK): Let us understand what TV Marti is. TV Marti is, and I have called it this for many years ... an electronic toy for a lot of people, for a little group in this country that makes a lot of political donations and in return gets a foreign policy that they like. I would hope that instead of taking taxpayer dollars to buy that toy called TV Marti, they would do what I do. When I want my electronic toys, I simply use my Radio Shack card, and it is much cheaper and does not hurt the taxpayers in any way. So I would recommend that to some folks in Miami and other places.
It is interesting to note that one of the things that happened with TV Marti is its offices were moved to Florida, I think we did that last year or the year before, because, supposedly, I think, you could get closer to Cuba through your transmission, not from Washington but from Florida. I do not think that is what it was, but that is what we were told it was. I have a lot of respect for the chairman of the subcommittee (Mr. Rogers), but I keep watching him every time he defends TV Marti to see if he is smiling or not, because I want to make sure that he really believes everything he is telling us.
Let us understand something: TV Marti may survive today once again. We are going to get closer to defeating it one of these days, but it may survive again. If it survives, it is only because it is a political issue that we Americans do not know how to deal with. We found out how to deal with China; we found out how to deal with Vietnam; we know how to deal with Korea. We even, it looks like, know how to deal with Iran and Iraq. But we do not know how to deal with Cuba. So we keep taking taxpayer dollars to build this big monster called an island of 11 million people that is somehow going to invade us and take us over one day. We are not going to discuss that part. The only invasion they will make can be seen at Yankee Stadium and other places where their quality of baseball continues to increase our quality of baseball.
MR. SKAGGS: I just wanted to offer some response to the gentlewoman from Florida, who I know feels deeply and sincerely, and I respect her feelings. And if I thought that somehow TV Marti was able to be made successful in getting information into Cuba, then the very moving arguments that the gentlewoman made would have some real traction. But this is not David Skaggs saying this does not work. Every time we have asked some outside group to take a look at this problem of electronics, how do you overcome a 100-watt jammer with a TV signal from an aerostat balloon, they keep coming back and saying it is not feasible. It does not work.
That is what we heard from the president's task force in 1991 and 1994. It is what we heard from the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy in 1991 and 1993. It is what the GAO said in 1992. It is what the advisory panel that the Congress set up in 1993 told us in 1994. It is what the Committee on Appropriations investigative staff said in 1995. It is what the Board of Broadcasting Governors, the entity we set up to supervise this whole part of the government, told us twice this year. It does not work. I am sorry, it does not work. We should not spend money on it.
MR. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D-NEW JERSEY): Mr. Chairman, I rise in strong opposition to the Skaggs amendment. The question that I think some have failed to ask themselves is why does Castro seek to abolish TV Marti? Why does he care if TV Marti does not penetrate Cuba? Because it does. TV Marti does penetrate Cuba and it does reach some Cuban households.
If we think about that, if we think about the messages that go to the Cuban government and the Cuban military who do have access to TV Marti and our ability to send messages at that level of the government, if we think about the ability to be ready in a time of transition when jamming may not be done, when there is a movement internally in the country, our ability to talk to those people by the power of images, such as CNN, it will be important. We will not be able to do that transmission if we do not have TV Marti at that time.
In our own Interests Section, TV Marti is played. Over 75,000 Cubans enter our Interests Section every year. What are they doing while they are waiting to see a counselor or officer? They are seeing TV Marti and the broadcasts that are recorded.
Yes, Cuba does jam TV Marti some of the time, but America has never responded to a recipient country's jamming of programming by simply giving up. That is the standard the members will set. If jamming is the reason why members will not permit TV Marti to go forward, then understand that if any other countries are jamming, we do not have the audience share, and the same situation will be sought to apply for others.
The Cuban people have not given up on their hope of democracy. I do not think we in America, who are a fountain and beacon of light to people throughout the world in terms of information, that we should be giving up on them and creating a different standard.
Even Joe Duffey of the United States Information Agency, the director, in letters to the gentleman from Kentucky (Chairman Rogers) and others have said that they in fact believe that TV Marti can be effective. We need to make sure that at this point in time we in fact stand with the free flow of information.
MR. PETER DEUTSCH (D-KEY WEST): Mr. Chairman, this House is the institution in the world that epitomizes freedom in the world. Our country, the oldest democracy in the history of the world, when we say that it just kind of rolls off our tongues, but I think every once in a while we need to stop and think about what that means.
The price of freedom has not been easy, as all of us know. It has been costly in many ways, in lives and money over hundreds of years at this point in time. This House and this country has had a commitment to that. We have used a variety of methods to achieve our goals. Who would have thought in this chamber, in this country, really in this world that the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union does not exist. And how did that happen?
History books will be written about how it happened, why it happened. But I think clearly an instrumental part of that was Radio Free Europe. The facts are it was jammed. It was jammed on a continuous basis. It was jammed more effectively, less effectively during different points in time. The facts are that we are trying to bring freedom throughout the world today in the darkest corners of this planet, where freedom has what appears to be no hope, whether it is in North Korea or in China.
We are committed as an institution, I think universally, every one of us, I really believe, as well as every American, towards those goals. Yet in those countries I just mentioned, as we try to broadcast into them, the penetration, because of effective jamming, is very, very small. Less than one percent of people in those countries are able to hear what we broadcast.
At no point in the history of the United States of America have we given up on our actions towards freedom. This amendment is an attempt to do exactly that. I urge my colleagues to defeat this amendment because this would be a dark chapter in the history of this House, a turning back of really over 200 years of American freedom.
I happen to represent the district in this country closest to Cuba. I represent South Florida and the Florida Keys, including Key West. When I am in Key West, I am 90 miles from Havana. I am actually 110 miles from Miami. I actually live about 60 miles north of Miami. My district goes even further north, to give my colleagues a sense of the geography of South Florida.
I live in a community, I have friends and I have actually been to Cuba on several occasions when we have had emigration go through at Guantanamo station. I have had the opportunity to talk to people who literally walk through mine fields, literally walk through mine fields to get to freedom. Some of the people that walked through did not make it. It is not a movie. It is a reality of what the country is today.
We hear from movie stars who go there, the Jack Nicholsons of the world, who idolize or make statements about Fidel Castro. I would point my colleagues to the statement of one of our colleagues, the gentleman from California (Mr. Lantos), who is the only Holocaust survivor in this chamber, who visited Cuba and talked to us and said that Cuba today, in terms of the people, is worse than pre-Nazi Germany. That is from his words and from his eyes. It is a country of political prisoners. It is not the idyllic island in the Caribbean of serenity and golf courses. It is a place of torture. It is a demon in our midst, a demon 90 miles from our shore.
To send the message that we do not care, that we are willing to put up with it, that we, for the first time in the history of the United States of America, are going to back down on our commitment to freedom would be absolutely tragic. I urge my colleagues to defeat this amendment.
MS. ROS-LEHTINEN: So many of our colleagues have been holding up a picture, and they say does this picture justify spending that much money on the transmissions of TV Marti? Let me show my colleagues a few more pictures. These are children who were killed by Castro's thugs just a few years ago.
This is a child just a few months old. This is a child about my daughter's age, right behind me, about twelve years of age. These were children who were killed, massacred, by Castro's thugs because they attempted to leave the island.
Now, this news was not broadcast on the island of Cuba. Because of Radio and TV Marti, people understood what these pictures meant. And these pictures were transmitted on TV Marti airwaves. And as it has been pointed out, these pictures have been shown to thousands of Cubans who daily visit our U.S. Interests Section in Havana, thousands of people who go there because they are waiting for visas to come to the United States.
How about these pictures, I would say to my colleagues? What do these pictures say? They say to me that these are people who are risking their lives to live in freedom, to live in democracy, to live in the best of what brought us here to this country, whether we are native-born or a naturalized American, as I am. This picture says a lot to me.
MR. SKAGGS: My sense is we may not have other speakers, and I want to take a very brief moment to close the debate, if I may.
Again, with all respect to the earnestness and the heartfelt commitment expressed by those that oppose this amendment, I have to say to them that we have tried and tried and tried, and this simply does not work.
It is not, as the gentleman from New Jersey suggested a moment ago, a question of political will. Political will cannot repeal the law of physics, and it is the basic electronics of this that make it doomed to failure.
I just ask my colleagues again to stop the insult to the American taxpayer of spending $10 million year in and year out to send no-see TV to Cuba. Stopping this will be a victory for them, not cause for celebration for Castro, because we will continue to penetrate that closed society with Radio Marti.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.