Hot Air Waves

Shortwave radios all over Cuba may soon be picking up some unusual transmissions: direct from Radio Marti studios in Miami, Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and County Commissioner Miriam Alonso, together on their very own show, discussing the democratic process as practiced in the United States. One of the more innovative programming changes recently proposed at the station Congress created in 1985 to broadcast the truth to Cuba's censorship-plagued society, it would mark the first time elected officials had their own show on a government station.

So far, the concept hasn't moved beyond a brief preliminary chat between the Radio Marti programming director and the two chosen politicos. But the Penelas/Alonso program and others are outlined and spurred forward in a programming department memo. They're the brainchild of Herminio San Roman, who since March has headed the Miami-based Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), the agency that oversees Radio Marti and TV Marti. Controversial in themselves, the proposals have arisen amid a flurry of employee complaints and grievances -- unprecedented in number, according to several long-time OCB bureaucrats -- filed against San Roman. In commenting for this story, several of the office's 200-plus staffers have expressed the belief that their phones are tapped, and two claim to have been warned not to cooperate with New Times. Some senior employees say they're looking for other jobs and that morale is the lowest it has been in years. "It's never been this bad," frets one veteran. "Something needs to happen or we'll implode."

A prominent Florida Democratic Party activist and a former partner in the law firm Adorno & Zeder, San Roman declined through his assistant Marisol Rodriguez to comment for this story. But he has publicly pledged to earn his $119,000 paycheck by using his "hands-on" management style to make the office's operations less bureaucratic, more businesslike, more eager to take risks, and open to new ideas and new faces.

Some of those new faces, though, are extremely familiar to San Roman, and to Dade residents. San Roman's wife Irma has been a county bureaucrat for ten years. San Roman himself campaigned for Alonso -- despite her Republican affiliation -- in her unsuccessful 1993 Miami mayoral campaign against Steve Clark. Julio Estorino, a popular personality at La Cubanisima (WQBA-AM 1140) and a vocal Clinton supporter during last year's presidential race, has been tapped by San Roman to deliver a daily commentary on Radio Marti, even though his features on the commercial station WQBA already reach a Cuban audience. San Roman also wants to hire Republican U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart's father Rafael to host a show about Cuban history.

In the past, shows proposed for Radio or TV Marti would be made into pilots and tested on focus groups of newly arrived Cuban immigrants or visitors and evaluated by an "external review panel" of journalists, business people, and others with expertise on Cuban matters. According to Marti staffers, none of that has happened with the current batch of proposed shows. The employee who used to arrange interviews and screenings has left the OCB and hasn't been replaced. Programming director Oscar Barceló says it's his understanding that focus groups are a thing of the past.

"I would be concerned if I were told, 'No, there's not going to be audience research.' How are we going to know anything about our Cuban audience?" wonders Margarita Rojo, an international radio broadcaster. "I would raise concerns if the external review panels were to be eliminated too. That's like our peers to keep us in check; we don't have ratings like networks. This is what I told Mr. San Roman, and I'm optimistic."

Some of Rojo's colleagues see San Roman's plans as a movement away from an emphasis on news and information. By way of example they point to the recent addition of a second soap opera. "We oppose that," comments Antonio Rivera, the station's field research director, "because that's not what the people in Cuba want -- our studies have shown they want news." (The theory behind the soaps is that they pull in listeners, who stay tuned for the news programming that follows.)

Meanwhile, several employees of the Martis, as the twin broadcasting entities are commonly referred to, don't have time to debate the philosophy of programming. They're too busy worrying about keeping their jobs under a boss they characterize as dictatorial and vindictive. At least eight formal complaints or grievances have been or will soon be lodged with various oversight or investigative offices, including the State Department's Office of the Inspector General, the United States Information Agency (USIA), and the Advisory Board for Radio Broadcasting to Cuba.

"His intimidation, such as I have never witnessed in my entire career, is clearly counterproductive in establishing the mutual respect which is fundamental to develop professional relationships," wrote Noreen Kinnavy, an executive assistant and ten-year OCB employee, in a formal grievance filed with a division of the USIA. "[I]n reality he has excluded me from my day-to-day responsibilities ... and ... the entire previous support staff at OCB has effectively been 'warehoused.'... I find it highly improper that Mr. San Roman has assigned his new assistant ... with nothing more than a political background, authority over me, a [higher-ranking government employee] with significantly greater experience."

Kinnavy's grievance concludes with an observation that San Roman "routinely invokes the name of 'William Jefferson Clinton' in a manner which can only be intimidating to those who believe that he is truly Clinton's right-hand man 'sent to clean up this mess,' as he once stated to me."

Yvonne Soler serves as staff director of the Advisory Board for Radio Broadcasting to Cuba, a presidentially appointed body that serves as a link between the White House and the Martis. Soler wrote a formal complaint to the board asserting that San Roman has forbidden her to have direct contact with any OCB staff member -- effectively eliminating her duties.

In a letter addressed to the chief of investigations at the Office of the Inspector General and copied to several other officials, Radio Marti field research director Antonio Rivera requested an investigation of an incident of "Blackmail Attempt Against a Federal Employee" -- namely him -- by San Roman. Rivera's three-page memo recounts a meeting he had with San Roman in which his boss allegedly claimed to possess tapes of remarks critical of San Roman that Rivera made at a May advisory board meeting. San Roman, Rivera writes, threatened to use the tapes to sue him for defamation. "'And since I'm a lawyer, it won't cost me a cent to take you to court,'" Rivera quotes San Roman as having said before asserting he could kick Rivera out of the office "in a matter of hours," eliminate his department, and "hacerle dano (hurt him badly)" if he cared to. (When asked to comment about his letter, Rivera expressed dismay that New Times had obtained a copy and declined to discuss the matter.)

Five other OCB employees say they're in the process of filing grievances, a process entangled in red tape and not lightly or frequently undertaken. Most of the complaints center on San Roman's "understated abuse of power," in the words of one staffer, as well as the perception that he lacks experience in -- or has a disregard for -- the federal government's complex rules and sine qua nons and tends to bypass official channels (for example, by offering jobs to people without posting openings and soliciting applications). "But the most concerning thing is his demeanor, the constant attempt to intimidate," says TV Marti news director Cristina Sanson, who intends to lodge an official grievance in the next few days. "He has every right in the world to have his own people and to make changes and recommendations, but you have to take the advice or the opinion of the people who've been there and have a deep knowledge of what's going on."

Skirmishes within the Martis are nothing new. Peace treaties are still being drafted in the wake of the most recent one, which involved allegations by several Radio Marti research analysts that Jorge Mas Canosa, the powerful chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation and chairman of the Advisory Board for Radio Broadcasting to Cuba, actively shaped news coverage and attempted to retaliate against their department by having it eliminated. After nearly four years and more than twenty investigations of the OCB by the Office of the Inspector General, no damning findings emerged against Mas Canosa. (The department is now being eliminated.) Still, there's a lingering public perception of ruthless infighting and influence wielding, and congressional critics continue to attempt to reduce the Martis' $22 million budget.

Spokesmen at the various entities that received complaints from OCB employees say they can't comment until the matters are resolved. If the research analysts' downfall is any indication, this resolution could easily outlast Clinton's tenure -- perhaps even Castro's.


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