Even in Miami, where Cuba conspiracy theories grow tall and thick like sugar cane at harvest time, some of Salvador Lew's Miami listeners were surprised when he warned of Fidel Castro's latest subversive campaign.
Lew, director of the United States government's Radio and TV Martí, appeared on Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710) last month to talk about the changes he's making at the taxpayer-funded stations, which are broadcast to Cuba. Radio Martí, Lew told listeners of the evening talk show Mesa Redonda, is now so popular on the island (TV Martí has virtually no viewers) that el comandante en jefe must attempt to discredit the operation.
"It was immediately evident," affirmed the 73-year-old Lew, a former friend and schoolmate of Castro, "that the order had come from the Cuban government to attack Radio Martí, and me as well." Pausing for a verbal nod of the head, he added, "I've been told that Fidel's brother [Raul] is also involved in the campaign against us." That wasn't unbelievable, since the Cuban government had indeed blasted some recent Martí news coverage and in a few weeks would be harshly accusing Radio Martí of causing an international incident when a group of young Cubans, evidently encouraged by provocatively edited comments made on Radio Martí, gate-crashed the Mexican embassy in Havana.
But when Lew attacked critics within his own Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which runs the Martí stations, the brief remarks instantly provoked rumblings from Miami to Washington to New York. "Here too they started to criticize me," Lew acknowledged, referring to Martí employees here in Miami. "That doesn't worry me, because when you have a clear conscience you're not worried about criticism or fabrications or anything. But it's very clear to me that [the critics] receive their orders from Havana. What they are doing is called moral assassination. That's how it works. It's the same method used by the castristas there and here."
Lew didn't name names, but he didn't have to. Those remarks were discussed heatedly throughout the small world of federal broadcasting, with most observers dismissing the accusations as attempts to deflect attention from mounting discontent at Radio and TV Martí.
But in Miami, comments like Lew's are normally taken as threats. One of the targeted employees half-joked: "I mean, what are your chances of having a coffee at Versailles now?" The landmark Cuban restaurant and gathering place on Calle Ocho is perhaps less a den of intrigue these days than it was during the bombings and shootings within the exile community of the Sixties and Seventies. Still, to be branded a Castro agent in this town can be devastating. Never mind if there's no proof.
Lew, appointed to his $132,000-per-year job by President George W. Bush this past July, was supposed to be the savior of what had become essentially a rogue operation. Independent investigations in the past had questioned the professionalism and balance of Radio Martí's news and programming, and the government's own audience surveys showed listenership plummeting in Cuba.
The white-haired, genial Lew is a respected political moderate, a 41-year veteran of Miami's AM radio business, and a living historical treasure. His nomination to the highly political post -- after the forced resignation of a Bill Clinton appointee -- was happily received among South Florida's Cuban exiles as well as by Gov. Jeb Bush, the man who will need continued close relations with that community in his upcoming re-election campaign.
After Lew assumed control of the stations, it took him only about a month to begin drawing fire on several fronts. His makeover goals were laudable, and in some aspects Radio Martí has undeniably improved. But even a number of the people who backed Lew most heartily now admit to being distressed by the administrative and financial turmoil over which he is presiding. And the Martí stations still largely look and sound more like a Little Havana meeting of Los Municipios de Cuba en Exilio than a credible U.S. government information source. Among the critiques:
Lew has already used up the OCB's $25 million fiscal-year budget, even raiding specially dedicated funds, to pay an unprecedented number of freelancers -- without firing the virtually untouchable permanent employees. Many of these independent contractors are longtime personal friends of Lew, and some have been turned down in the past for employment at the Martí stations.
He has increased the presence on Radio Martí of el exilio's most prominent, sometimes inflammatory, hard-line anti-Castro spokesmen and politically powerful commentators. For example, Radio Mambí's general manager Armando Perez-Roura, a mesmerizing orator and arguably the king of exile radio, is heard in Cuba every day thanks to Mambí's 50,000-watt AM signal. But in addition to that, he is heard for four hours and five minutes every week on Radio Martí. Also included on the government's program list: Rafael Diaz-Balart, the father of outspoken Cuban-American Republican Congressman Lincoln.
Soon after Lew became director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, he disbanded the long-standing editorial-review committee. As a result, none of the new freelance programs has had to pass any independent scrutiny.
Two audience surveys released this past January show overwhelming acceptance in Havana of the "new" Radio Martí. So overwhelming, in fact, many skeptics have trouble believing them. The listenership figures in both surveys are in the 60-percent to 90-percent range, the station's highest in 15 years. They come after an official U.S. study in August 2001 concluded the Radio Martí audience throughout Cuba was at an all-time low of five percent.
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."
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."
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.
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.
This arrangement isn't new; Lew's predecessor at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Herminio San Roman, originally asked Perez-Roura to appear on Radio Martí. Lew, however, has more than doubled Perez-Roura's airtime. Perez-Roura himself takes a modest measure of his influence and sees nothing wrong with Radio Martí airing his programs. "A good station presents a cocktail of programs," he offers. "It informs, analyzes, orients, entertains." Lew explains Perez-Roura's presence on Radio Martí this way: "It's inconceivable that the most popular commentator in Miami is not heard in Cuba." (This despite the fact that Radio Mambí carries his voice to Cuba every day.)
Perez-Roura is hardly the only Mambí voice heard on Radio Martí. Lew's friend Santiago Aranegui hosts programs on both stations, and Rafael Diaz-Balart is a regular guest and commentator on both. Diaz-Balart, who recently proclaimed on Radio Mambí that the Castro government is "worse than the Taliban" in its treatment of women, is Fidel Castro's former brother-in-law, a former minister in the Batista government, and father of politicians Lincoln and Mario and TV personality José.
When the elder Diaz-Balart and historian Enrique Ros, father of U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, were first contracted to appear on Radio Martí in 1997, protests erupted over the wisdom of giving taxpayer-sponsored airtime to the fathers of Florida's two Cuban-American members of Congress, who also happened to be the most vocal champions of the Martí stations in the House. Ros subsequently ceased his Radio Martí appearances.
Lew's friend Nancy Perez-Crespo, a regular contributor to Radio Mambí's Mesa Revuelta program, is under contract to host a show five evenings per week on Radio Martí, for which she is paid more than $45,000 annually. One of Perez-Crespo's frequent guests is Ninoska Perez Castellon of WQBA-AM (1140), former spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation before leading an exodus of influential members last summer. Perez Castellon is already famous both here and in Cuba for her crank calls to the island that fluster and embarrass top communist party officials.
Recently on Radio Martí, Perez-Crespo interviewed two men who "investigate the activities of Cubans in the United States who work for the Castro regime." The Cubans working for Castro turned out to be those who advocated normalization of relations with Cuba and who helped bring Cuban musicians (such as Los Van Van) to perform in the United States. The entire half-hour was dedicated to trashing, by name, prominent organizations and individuals, including Democratic Party activist and Bay of Pigs veteran Alfredo Duran and University of Miami scholar Max Castro, a regular contributor to the Miami Herald. "They call themselves Cubans, they talk about intolerance here, when they're intolerant," Perez-Crespo protested. "Maybe they've been sent directly from the [Castro] regime." Max Castro, she added, was "Fidel Castro's columnist in the Miami Herald."
Daily listening to Radio Martí (accessible via the Internet; see sidebar) leaves the distinct impression that many of these Miami Cubans reaching out to those on the island are talking to the Cuba of the Forties and Fifties, or to a land they have reconstructed secondhand from contacts with dissidents and newly arrived immigrants. The majority of those now calling the shots at the Martí stations (as at all the other exile stations) are white, middle-class men who departed Cuba soon after the revolution.
When he took office, Lew said that Radio Martí programs would emphasize that most Cubans were better off economically under dictator Fulgencio Batista than they are under Castro. And sure enough, in show after show, a plentiful supply of dissidents on the island and activists in exile recount, discuss, and protest the terrible conditions on the island. But the very monotony of this complaining tends to dull the impact of hearing about Cuba's pressing economic and human-rights depredations. "[Martí management] is clueless as to what Cubans really want to hear," scoffs one longtime OCB employee who spoke on condition of anonymity. "[Cubans on the island] know how bad they're doing. They don't need to hear about it all the time, and they don't care how great the economy was under Batista. [The Martí stations] always had a quality newscast in Washington, where they would cover world events. Now we're covering somebody's friend's stuff in Miami."
Lew counters that he's gradually making the station more relevant to contemporary Cubans. He touts Sassy Alfaro's Santería show as an outreach to "Afro-Cubans," and he's proud of an upcoming program about the Cuban military, to be produced in Washington by Radio Martí's respected first news director, Jay Mallin. The Miami-Dade Housing Authority director, Rene Rodriguez, has agreed to present (free of charge) a weekly program about the kinds of housing available to low-income immigrants.
None of these or the other new shows have been screened or approved by anyone except Lew. When the Martí stations were in Washington, each proposed show was evaluated by a professional review board and often revised before it went on the air. By the time the OCB had settled in Miami, the review board had been reduced to a panel of politically placed employees. Then Lew did away with even that. He promises to reinstate a review committee when he can find the right people to be on it. Enrique Patterson, for one, isn't encouraged. "My program passed for quality when I started," Patterson relates. "But Dr. Lew canceled the board, and after that they make programs like Mambí: people talking and not presenting any basis [for their statements]. This is government money and you have to follow certain procedures. If they still had the [review] board, just about all the programs at present would have been rejected."
Lew and his supporters dispute that, and have released the impressive results of two listener surveys to prove Radio Martí is regaining its old vigor. In one survey, members of a Cuban independent journalists' association (the Foundation of Associated Independent Journalists) claimed to have interviewed 1000 people on the streets of Havana. The responses indicated 92.5 percent of them listened to Radio Martí every day and 62.3 percent listen all day, every day. A much smaller sampling at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana also reported that a high percentage of the types of Cubans likely to be found at the Interests Section (professionals and dissidents) listened to Radio Martí.
These results were surprising in light of the U.S. government survey of August 2001, which reported a rock-bottom five-percent listenership. When the two highly favorable surveys were made public, the reaction in Washington and Miami was generally skeptical, with some knowledgeable observers labeling the independent journalists' appraisal fraudulent; they doubted that so many Cubans, normally reluctant to admit doing something for which they could be punished, had answered the extensive list of questions the journalists claim to have posed.
If the surveys raise questions about the integrity of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting's external affairs, the recent raft of employee complaints does the same for its internal affairs. These complaints to federal oversight offices add to the ugly mess left by Lew's predecessor, Miami attorney Herminio San Roman. When San Roman resigned as OCB director last July, at least four lawsuits against him and his top managers were pending. The complaints alleged unfair demotion or dismissal, discrimination, even blackmail. The plaintiff in one suit who alleged discrimination based on national origin won her case a year ago and was awarded $300,000 in compensatory damages. Now the new complaints are piled on the pending cases.
The four women alleging sexual discrimination against Lew referred questions to their Miami attorney, Robert Weisberg. Two of the women, Christina Sansón and Martha Yedra, were removed from positions of authority (acting news director and program director, respectively), replaced by men, and given jobs they believe were designed to force them to resign. The other women, Michelle Sagué and Carmen Steegers, allegedly were diverted to inferior assignments and denied promotions that were given to men. All four claim they complained several times last summer to the Broadcasting Board of Governors' Office of Civil Rights but received no response until January or February 2002.
Other employees say they're consulting attorneys after contractors, some of whom allegedly had been rejected for employment in the past, took over all or part of their former duties. Several employees and freelancers say they have spoken with representatives from the U.S. state department's Office of the Inspector General or the Office of Civil Rights at the BBG. Enrique Patterson vows to "go to court" if he doesn't receive equal pay for equal work.
The Martí stations' history is marked by regular investigations of bias, favoritism, journalistic incompetence, and mistreatment of employees. Several scathing reports have been issued, the most recent by the State Department's Office of the Inspector General in early 1999, which called for closer supervision of the Martí stations by federal administrators. But the political unrest -- fueled by internecine conflicts among exile interests and Washington's willingness to relinquish the Martí stations to these interests -- dooms the OCB to a future of endless, debilitating power struggles. Lost amid the turmoil is the mandate to speak with the voice of America, to provide credible, uncensored information to Cuba.
"Maybe the situation at Radio Martí has become so dysfunctional they could appoint Sir Lancelot to run the station and there'd be complaints," muses a Washington source familiar with OCB operations. "I think the place no longer knows what its mission is. The move to Miami has given many dedicated people nowhere to go. They've lost their moorings, and there's no professional supervision that would fix this."
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.