In the coming months, the federal government will relocate the headquarters of Radio Marti and Television Marti from their current home in Washington, D.C., to Miami. The move from the capital of the United States to the capital of Cuban exile politics represents more than a 1200-mile trek down Interstate 95; it is a journey fraught with as much peril for the integrity of those broadcast organizations as the Florida Straits are for desperate Cuban balseros.
The Republican-controlled House and Senate may have passed the legislation mandating the move, but it was a Democratic president who happily signed the measure into law the very next day A further evidence of Bill Clinton's willingness to relinquish control of U.S. policy toward Cuba and cede it to Congress and leading forces in the Cuban exile community.
Not all members of el exilio supported the plan, however. For example, in an April 17 letter to Rep. Dan Burton, chairman of the House Western Hemisphere Affairs subcommittee, former Cuban political prisoner Armando Valladares warned the Indiana Republican that moving the radio station in particular would be a serious mistake. Characterizing the proposal as a "crazy idea," Valladares wrote, "The strength of Radio Marti has always been its impartiality and that it carries the message and point of view of the United States government. I seriously believe that once in Miami, those strong points will be lost immediately. No longer will Radio Marti be viewed as the voice of the United States but rather, as it succumbs to exile politics, as one more station carrying the viewpoint of some exile group. The credibility Radio Marti has earned for so many years will evaporate in a short time."
Despite Valladares's assertions, Radio Marti's credibility and impartiality have for years been the subject of debate. Lately that debate has intensified, and allegations of one sort or another have been flying about wildly. The question -- and the advisability of moving the station to Miami -- might have been resolved months ago had Marian Bennett, inspector general of the United States Information Agency (USIA), completed in a more timely manner her investigation of management practices at the radio station. Bennett's inquiry was prompted by charges that Jorge Mas Canosa, chairman of the influential Cuban American National Foundation, routinely interfered with station operations by shaping its news coverage and influencing personnel decisions.
Radio Marti, which has been broadcasting to Cuba for eleven years, was Mas Canosa's brainchild, and its creation has been one of his crowning achievements. In the early Eighties, Ronald Reagan appointed him chairman of the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting. His term officially expired seven years ago, but apparently neither George Bush nor Bill Clinton believes there is sufficient political advantage in replacing him, and he remains in the post.
Federal law prohibits Mas Canosa, as board chairman, from involving himself in the internal affairs of the Marti stations. And yet for years rumors have persisted that he didn't simply meddle from time to time, but that he actually ruled the broadcast outlets (Radio Marti in particular) through fear and intimidation. In a much-publicized blowup, the first director of Radio Marti, Ernesto Betancourt, resigned in 1990 after complaining loudly about Mas Canosa's alleged influence over the station.
In June 1994, the Office of the Inspector General for USIA -- the federal agency that oversees the Marti stations -- formally opened an investigation after several employees claimed they had been removed from their posts or stripped of their responsibilities after refusing to acquiesce to attempts to distort the news or to deceive Congress regarding the size of the stations' audience in Cuba. The employees also said they believed that Jorge Mas Canosa was behind the reprisals. (Mas Canosa would not comment for this article.)
In July 1995, in response to a request from Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colorado), a confidential "status report" on Bennett's investigation was prepared and sent to him and at least one other congressman, as well as to USIA director Joseph Duffey. A week later, on July 23, the New York Times, citing "officials familiar with the report," wrote that investigators had found that Mas Canosa "has systematically interfered in Radio Marti's day-to-day operations" and that "the radio station has improperly retaliated against employees who protested such manipulation."
The article, however, proved to be premature, if not downright misleading. In a cover letter and again in a summary of the status report, Inspector General Bennett made it clear that, contrary to the Times's assertions, her investigators had not yet reached any conclusions. "The OIG [Office of the Inspector General] investigation is not complete," her report states. "OIG must conduct additional interviews and must further evaluate information gathered in the investigation before we can draw final conclusions." Bennett also stressed that the material she was providing was to be held in strictest confidence.
USIA officials quickly responded to the media coverage, and while not releasing the contents of the status report, they reiterated that no conclusions had been reached by investigators and that the probe remained open. USIA director Duffey, scrambling for cover, issued a statement expressing his concern that Bennett would release confidential material during an ongoing inquiry, and he announced that a separate investigation would be launched into Bennett's handling of the affair.
The misleading nature of the Times article (which was reprinted in the Miami Herald), and the questions raised about Bennett's conduct, gave Mas Canosa and his allies ample ammunition to castigate the inspector general, to call for her immediate firing, and to derail the investigation.
What had begun as an ambitious examination of Jorge Mas Canosa's influence over Radio and TV Marti had degenerated into a rancorous debate over the ethical responsibilities of government investigators. Lost in the ensuing political maelstrom was any hope of completing the inspector general's inquiry. With Bennett's actions under severe attack, her lead investigator -- the man responsible for gathering the bulk of the evidence and conducting the interviews with Marti employees -- abruptly resigned from the inspector general's office.
For the past year Marian Bennett has been unable or unwilling to complete the investigation of Mas Canosa. (Bennett did not return phone calls seeking comment.) And for his part, Mas Canosa can rest easy in the knowledge that Bennett is unlikely to pose any future threat to him. Contained in the legislation relocating the headquarters of Radio and TV Marti to Miami was a provision abolishing the inspector general's office in the USIA and transferring those responsibilities to the State Department's inspector general.
Whether the State Department's investigators will pick up where Bennett left off is unclear (department spokesmen declined to comment about the investigation). But with Radio and TV Marti headed for Mas Canosa's home turf, the questions posed by the original inquiry take on added significance. When those allegations of interference first surfaced, Mas Canosa issued a categorical denial. "These charges are baseless," he declared, "and I challenge anyone to provide proof to the contrary."
Sworn affidavits may not constitute proof, but those attached to Bennett's 1995 status report (and apparently not leaked to the Times) are at least persuasive. One after another, government employees stepped forward last year to provide statements to federal investigators, and they described in great detail their experiences with and observations of Mas Canosa and his influential role at the radio and television stations.
Over the past few weeks, U.S. News and World Report and the Miami Herald obtained copies of those affidavits and published articles based on their contents. New Times also acquired copies of the documents. While USIA officials downplay their significance, the agency still refuses to release them to the public, which frustrates people like Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst specializing in Cuban affairs at the National Security Archives. A Washington-based public-interest group that regularly seeks to declassify documents dealing with U.S. foreign policy, Kornbluh's group has requested but not received copies of all material gathered by Bennett and her team.
"This was an investigation about conflict of interest, political bias, professional corruption, and abuse of taxpayer money," Kornbluh asserts. "Jorge Mas Canosa, for good or for bad, is a key actor in Cuba policy, and Bennett's report is about how he conducted himself in his official role as the chairman of the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting."
Kornbluh believes that Bennett's investigation hasn't been completed in part because Mas Canosa and one or two other Marti officials have refused to cooperate. "Most people I know see that refusal as a stall tactic," he says. Mas Canosa, he theorizes, did not want Bennett's full report to be issued while Congress was debating whether to relocate Radio and TV Marti to Miami. And now Kornbluh sees the upcoming presidential campaign as a further deterrent to finishing the investigation, especially if its findings could embarrass Mas Canosa. Florida's votes, Kornbluh says, are simply too important to Bill Clinton. "The report is being held up because no one in USIA, the State Department, or the White House has the cojones to demand its release in an election year," he charges. "This is essentially a coverup for reasons of political cowardice."
Like Jorge Mas Canosa, Bruce Sherman has been with Radio Marti since its inception. In 1990 he was appointed deputy director of the station, responsible for supervising technical operations, the research and personnel departments, and on-air components such as programming and news. Sherman provided investigators with a remarkably detailed affidavit, 29 single-spaced pages in length. As he explained, he was able to recall names, dates, and conversations with unusual clarity because throughout his tenure at Radio Marti, he maintained "extensive notes" -- a diary of sorts -- detailing his career at the station and Mas Canosa's involvement.
In his statement, dated April 20, 1995, Sherman made it clear that his most serious problems arose from his supervision of Radio Marti's news division. Above all else, Sherman stated as a sort of preamble to his lengthy affidavit, Radio Marti's most important mission is the dissemination of objective and accurate information to the citizens of Cuba. "Telling the truth, if you will," he explained, "so as to promote the freedom of the Cuban people."
Instead, Sherman wrote, he encountered constant attempts to turn radio Marti into the propaganda arm of Mas Canosa and the Cuban American National Foundation. Mas Canosa exerted significant control over the news department, Sherman alleged, by placing people loyal to him in key positions. One of those individuals, Sherman claimed, was Agustin Alles Soberon, the station's news director from 1991 to 1995.
"I did not support Radio Marti's hiring of Mr. Alles," Sherman stated in his affidavit. "For the vacant news director job in late 1990, I had recruited two Cuban-American journalists in Miami of very considerable experience and Cuba expertise: Daniel Morcate, then of Univision, and Pablo Alfonso, of the Miami Herald. I proposed these two names to [Radio Marti acting director] Mr. [Rolando] Bonachea, who said he checked with 'people' in Miami and that neither Mr. Morcate nor Mr. Alfonso was suitable."
Bruce Boyd, the personnel director at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), referred to Alles as "a perennial applicant" who had regularly been rejected as unsuitable for employment at Radio Marti while Ernesto Betancourt was director of the station. "However, in early 1991, Bonachea, as the acting director of Radio Marti, told me to bring Alles in and interview him," Boyd recalled in his affidavit to investigators. "During my interview with Alles, he could not respond to my questions because he could not understand English. After the interview, I told Bonachea and Bruce Sherman, deputy director of Radio Marti, that my interview with Alles was 'the most bizarre interview I've ever conducted.' Further, I told them that I didn't see how we could consider Alles as a serious candidate for news director because his limited English ability would prevent him from being able to perform the duties of that position. Specifically, as the news director, Alles would have to interact with other organizations both within and outside USIA. Based on my interview with Alles, I knew that he would not be able to communicate in English regarding even routine matters."
Over the objections of both Boyd and Sherman, Bonachea hired Alles as deputy news director, and then within a few months elevated him to the position of news director, despite the longstanding USIA requirement that Radio Marti's news director be fluent in English. Boyd even recalled having to fill out Alles's application because Alles couldn't adequately write or read English. (Neither Rolando Bonachea nor Augustin Alles could be reached for comment. Beth Knisley, chief of media relations at the USIA's Bureau of Broadcasting, says that both men are under a "gag order" from superiors not to speak to the press while the inspector general's investigation is open.)
Another problem with Alles, according to Sherman's testimony, was his refusal to follow USIA guidelines pertaining to the sourcing of stories. The station's policy required that at least two sources must verify information contained in a story before it could be broadcast. "What this meant in practice was that Mr. Alles condoned and practiced using single sources for many hard-to-document assertions involving Cuban internal matters, assertions, as it turned out, that were largely very critical of the Castro regime," Sherman stated. "Would anyone challenge him on properly substantiating Radio Marti news stories, Mr. Alles would inevitably turn the concern over following rules into an allegation that his critics, myself especially, were too soft on Castro or were even Castro sympathizers.
"The matter of sources for news stories was just one of many issues, however. As troubling as any was Mr. Alles's close association to Mr. Mas, and the control the latter exerted over Radio Marti's news coverage through Mr. Alles." Sherman went on to note that "Mr. Mas would often call Mr. Alles directly to request news coverage of Mr. Mas's own activities or those of the Cuban American National Foundation."
Recounting one such incident to investigators, Sherman stated, "On March 4, 1992, Mr. Alles called me at home at 10:00 p.m. to say Mr. Mas had just called him to relate that, during a campaign stop in Miami by President Bush, the president had singled out Mr. Mas in the crowd for mention. Mr. Alles told me Mr. Mas had asked him to provide immediate coverage of this event that same evening. Mr. Alles complied. On March 5, 1992, Mr. Mas called Mr. Alles to verify the coverage he had requested the night before.
"On March 6, 1992, Mr. Alles disregarded my specific guidance on further coverage of the Bush campaign stop. My guidance was to focus on President Bush's statements on U.S. policy towards Cuba and not to give yet additional air time to Mr. Bush's recognition of Mr. Mas. In spite of this, Mr. Alles sought out a further interview with Mr. Mas to have him, among other things, stress President Bush having recognized him among the crowd at the campaign event."
In addition to demanding coverage of himself, Sherman charged, Mas Canosa would also express his ire over stories about people and events that seemed to contradict his view of what U.S. policy toward Cuba should be. "On February 11, 1992, OCB [Office of Cuba Broadcasting] receptionist Mary Jane Clark interrupted the daily editorial meeting to say that Mr. Mas was on the telephone and wanted to speak to Mr. Bonachea immediately," Sherman recalled. "Mr. Bonachea told me afterwards that Mr. Mas was extremely upset over Radio Marti's coverage of the Letter of Good Faith Towards the People of Cuba. On February 12, 1992, Mr. Bonachea told me Mr. Mas had called him the evening before to complain again very vehemently about Radio Marti's coverage of the Letter of Good Faith Towards the People of Cuba. The letter was a statement by three of Cuba's leading dissidents, calling on the governments of both Cuba and the United States to enter into a dialogue to overcome the impasse between the two countries and to help provide for Cuba's own economic and political recovery. (Dialogue with the Castro government is anathema to certain conservative Cuban-Americans like Mr. Mas.)
"Mr. Bonachea had received the letter on January 29 or 30, 1992 while he was in Miami. He faxed it immediately to William Valdes, Mr. Alles's special assistant, and directed him to provide coverage of it in Radio Marti's news reports. On February 7, 1992, when asked about our coverage of the letter at the daily editorial meeting, Mr. Valdes said we had aired a story on it twice. Later Mr. Bonachea discovered that, to the contrary, we had not aired the story at all and did not air it until February 9, ten days after we first received the document, and after both Mr. Bonachea and I intervened to insist to Mr. Alles that the letter be covered.
"Our coverage of the letter sparked Mr. Mas's protest to Mr. Bonachea on February 12, 1992. Radio Marti then decided to provide additional coverage of the letter with a half-hour program on the night of February 12. Mr. Alles and Mr. Valdes prepared the program for that evening, interviewing Mr. Mas, among others," Sherman continued. "However, Mr. Mas's statements were vitriolic and ad hominem regarding the Cuban dissidents who had authored the letter. Mr. Valdes asked that I review the tape of Mr. Mas's statements. I did, decided they could not be aired, and advised Mr. Valdes accordingly. He then contacted Mr. Bonachea, who called Mr. Mas and asked him to provide us with another statement. Mr. Bonachea and I discussed the topic that evening, and he related to me Mr. Mas's extreme agitation over having been edited. Ultimately, Mr. Mas did give us another interview that we were able to broadcast.
"Having to edit Mr. Mas's remarks was never a happy task, in my experience."
In another telling incident related by Sherman, this one from March 1994, Richard Lobo, who at the time was the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, decided that Radio Marti should cover the congressional hearings being held by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York) regarding the effects of the U.S. embargo on the Cuban people. "Mr. Lobo's proposal to cover the hearings live met with considerable opposition within Radio Marti and with Mr. Mas," Sherman wrote. "Given that Congressman Rangel argues for ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba, his views are strongly opposed by conservative Cuban-Americans, including Mr. Mas. Mr. Alles as well as Mr. Bonachea were not in favor of covering the March 18 hearings live, as they thought this was not an editorial priority (and, I would add, believed it would excessively highlight Mr. Rangel's views). On the day of the coverage, Mr. Alles was as much a hindrance as a help for the coverage. At the hearing's conclusion, Mr. Alles vociferously opposed our interviewing Congressman Rangel for his views on the proceedings. I, standing in Radio Marti's on-air studio, overruled Mr. Alles, and we went ahead with the interview.
"Mr. Lobo told me he had received a call from Mr. Mas just before March 18 in which Mr. Mas voiced his opposition to Radio Marti's live coverage of the Rangel hearings. This was his view, interestingly, despite the fact he was scheduled to testify (and did testify) at the hearings. I was a vocal and prominent supporter of Mr. Lobo's plan, not because I favored Mr. Rangel's views, but because I thought the coverage would make for dynamic programming. The coverage was a breakthrough for Radio Marti and even earned us kudos from Secretary of State Warren Christopher in a letter he sent to USIA Director Duffey."
Sherman recounted to investigators that he believed his continuing criticism of Alles's performance led to his being slowly stripped of all duties and responsibilities, leaving him with a job title but no authority. "I also believe my pointing out problems with Mr. Alles, among many other matters, caused me to run afoul of Jorge Mas Canosa, chairman of the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting, which oversees Radio and TV Marti operations," Sherman stated. "I believe Mr. Mas has applied pressure on OCB management to remove me from any meaningful role at Radio Marti."
The deputy director, who remains at the station despite his severely diminished responsibilities, concluded his affidavit by noting to investigators: "I have much more information concerning the efforts by Jorge Mas Canosa to influence Radio Marti operations, including personnel and editorial matters, to further, what I believe, are his particular ends. I could provide this additionally, if needed."
In March 1995, Augustin Alles was transferred from the Washington office to Radio Marti's Miami office, where works as an assignment editor for the station.
Kristin Juffer joined Radio Marti in July 1986 as a research specialist, and within two years was named director of audience research for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. She has an undergraduate degree in Spanish and Latin American studies, and a Ph.D. in education, specializing in the development of cross-cultural psychological testing. Before applying for government service, she worked for a private market-research firm that conducted radio and television surveys for clients such as ABC News, Disney, Lorimar, and Buena Vista Pictures. Juffer was also specially trained at Radio Free Europe to conduct surveys in closed communist societies. At the time of her sworn statement to investigators in November and December of 1994, she had accumulated sixteen years of experience conducting market research.
The highly educated and experienced Juffer said she found herself in the uncomfortable position of working with Antonio Rivera, Radio Marti's Miami-based director of field services. "Rivera only has a high school diploma from Cuba and one year's community college in Miami, and has no training or education to conduct research or surveys," she stated.
Additionally, she told investigators, "...Rivera is generally regarded by many at Radio Marti as Jorge Mas Canosa's 'right hand man.' Rivera frequently accompanies Mas Canosa, has an open telephone line to him, and although he is employed by Radio Marti to gather information and intelligence on happenings in Cuba and on Cuban emigres, he also regularly funnels such information and intelligence to Mas Canosa."
Although Rivera was not formally part of Juffer's audience-research department, she discovered in early 1990 that he had been conducting a survey on the effectiveness of TV Marti. Juffer stated in her affidavit: "In his April 2, 1990 survey report to Bonachea, Rivera reported that 'The survey show (sic) that the TV Marti signal has reached a very significant segment of Cuba (sic) population. It has been reported in twelve of Cuba fourteen provinces. Our potential audience could be close to 2,800,000 without interference at the present moment. Those living in areas suffering interference (about 2,153,154) are even able to watch during certain period (sic) of time.' Rivera provided 'statistics' in his report that led the reader to conclude that TV Marti could reach 55% of the National Cuban population without interference.
"Although USIA did not approve the survey results in that meeting, Mas Canosa and Rivera went to Capitol Hill and met with a number of Congressmen, called a press conference and released the results to the public," Juffer stated. "Mas Canosa's actions and Rivera's questionable data inspired Congressman John Dingell to call for a GAO investigation into the TV Marti survey results."
As a result of the controversy caused by Dingell's demand for an investigation, Juffer was finally asked by her superiors to review Rivera's findings. Her conclusion: "I found the survey data to be so flawed as to render the data to be meaningless."
When word leaked to the press and to Congress that Rivera's survey data was useless, Radio and TV Marti once again came under attack from critics. "As a result of the negative publicity surrounding Rivera's study, Bonachea came to me and asked me to organize a scientific and defendable survey on TV Marti viewership," Juffer recalled. "I did so, however, the political atmosphere on the Hill and in the country toward accepting any results regarding TV Marti had already been tainted by complete distrust due to Mas Canosa's premature move to distribute Rivera's faulty and grossly inflated data to the Hill and the public."
The results of Juffer's TV Marti survey were dramatically different from Rivera's, and they were not received well at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. "I believe that retaliation has been and continues to be taken against me as the Director of the Office of Audience Research for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting for having done my job," she stated. "Specifically, in December 1991 and April 1992, my office produced two Cuban audience surveys (conducted September-December 1991, and February-April 1992) which indicated that TV Marti had virtually no viewership and Radio Marti's listenership was declining."
Juffer recalled that for the first time in her career the quality of her work was questioned by her superiors: "To my surprise, Bonachea then instructed that the information from the surveys not be reported, printed or distributed to anyone inside or outside of USIA." She stated that two earlier reports she had issued, also showing a slide in Radio Marti's audience, were withheld from the public and from Congress. Taken together, these reports showed that from late 1989 to early 1992 Radio Marti's estimated audience in Cuba dropped from 95 percent of survey respondents to 71 percent. They also showed that TV Marti's audience was never more than two percent. "These surveys have, to my knowledge, been withheld for the past two and a half years," she stated, "and OCB management, I believe, has taken steps to conceal the results of the surveys."
Eventually Juffer's concerns were transformed to justifiable paranoia. "On or about January 21, 1994, when I went to use my 486 computer in USIA Research, I discovered that all the files pertaining to the 1993 Cuban audience survey project were gone," she stated in her affidavit. "On February 17, 1994, I discovered that an unknown individual had entered my office and sabotaged a second computer. More than one hundred files and directories related to the previous Cuba surveys were removed. Also removed were meeting notes and daily chronologies concerning the management of the Cuban surveys and contracting projects. USIA security investigated and determined that the deletion was 'no accident' and the files could only have been deleted 'purposefully.' I believe the reasons that the files were destroyed and my computers sabotaged was an attempt to ensure that the research data no longer existed and therefore would not raise questions concerning the effectiveness of TV/Radio Marti."
Soon after losing her files, Juffer lost her job as well, ostensibly as part of a "streamlining" effort to save money. But she claimed the cutback was a deliberate act to get rid of her and other members of her staff who refused to manipulate survey results. "I believe I was removed from my position," she declared in her affidavit, "so that Rivera could once again control and 'cook' the Cuban audience data, and once again mislead Congress."
Antonio Rivera remains chief of the Miami field research office for Radio and TV 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.