Jammin' In Havana
Monday, November 9 was the first day of an unprecedented practice in the 50-year history of Voice of America (VOA), the government agency born of the Cold War to broadcast U.S. news and culture to countries with limited freedom of expression. Between 10:00 and 11:00 p.m. on that Monday last month, listeners tuning in to two popular Miami Spanish-language AM radio stations heard Las Noticias Como Son (The News As It Is), accompanied by a detailed report on "La Democracia: La Primera Opcion." During brief station breaks, listeners might have been surprised to learn they'd picked up Radio Marti, the VOA's broadcast to Cuba.
Though widely unheralded, it was the first time VOA had leased time on commercial radio stations anywhere in the world. The idea was to try to circumvent the Castro government's assiduous jamming of Radio Marti, whose transmitter is located on Marathon Key. The supplemental broadcasts ended this past Friday, December 11, after a 25-day experimental run. They could resume on a permanent basis, they could be changed to different stations, or they could be dropped altogether, according to Antonio Navarro, director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting in Washington, D.C. Navarro insists Radio Marti will scrap the strategy if this test period proves to have been ineffective. But the project was pursued in the first place despite technical studies earlier this year that concluded U.S. radio reception on the island was "inadequate."
The U.S. government is prohibited by law from beaming its VOA programs to its own citizens, but there are exceptions written into the 1983 law creating Radio Marti. Broadcasting from domestic U.S. stations is allowed when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) determines the jamming of Radio Marti's 1180-AM frequency has increased by 25 percent over the jamming levels measured in 1983. (Those measurements were taken before the advent of Radio Marti, but the VOA had been broadcasting to Cuba on the 1180-AM frequency ever since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.)
Radio Marti officials assert it's their responsibility to pursue broadcasting on alternative frequencies to counter Castro's jamming efforts. But little is taken at face value in the edgy, passionate political ambiance of Miami's Cuban exile community, and many here pronounce Radio Marti's arrangement with the two stations not an anti-communist outreach but an inward-turned exile power play. These accusations come amid other controversies surrounding Radio Marti. In response to a request from the General Accounting Office -- Congress's investigative arm -- the VOA recently conducted an investigation of allegations of bias in Radio Marti's news coverage. (VOA will establish an independent review board as a result.) In addition, the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting, charged with ensuring the effectiveness of Radio Marti and its counterpart, TV Marti, also recently has called for all broadcast operations to be moved from Washington to Miami. That, according to some observers, would tie the government outlets ever more closely to Miami's volatile exile politics.
The nine-member advisory board, by most accounts, was the sustaining force behind Radio Marti's decision to lease air time on two of Miami's most popular Spanish-language radio stations: WQBA (La Cubanisima) and WAQI (Radio Mambi). Chairman of that board is the powerful Jorge Mas Canosa, also head of the Cuban American National Foundation. Mas, who didn't return phone calls seeking comment for this story, is a potent presence on Miami airwaves through his and his supporters' frequent appearances on radio talk shows. He further maintains a high profile through the Foundation's shortwave radio station, La Voz de la Fundacion, and is considered the most politically influential Cuban American in the nation.
The former director of Radio Marti, Ernesto Betancourt, resigned in 1990, alleging that Mas forced him out because he refused to acquiesce to Cuban American National Foundation pressure to give disproportionate voice to Mas's exile faction in news coverage. Mas and other Radio Marti officials have emphatically denied the charge.
Mas has, however, served on Radio Marti's advisory board longer than any other member: six years. Members of the bipartisan board are appointed by the president, usually for three-year terms, but Mas has remained the board's chairman since its formation in 1986. After appointment, each member must be confirmed by the Senate; no more than five members can belong to the same political party; and each must receive a national security clearance. Four board members are based in Washington, D.C.; four, including Mas and Tony Costa, a Foundation director, live in or near Miami. One, former U.S. Rep. Clair Burgener, commutes from Rancho Santa Fe, California, to the board's bimonthly meetings in Washington or Miami.
The advisory board doesn't have authority to hire or fire Radio Marti employees, says Jim Skinner, the board's executive director; it recommends strategy and policy. Those recommendations, while not binding, are "more than likely" followed by Radio Marti staff, Skinner adds.
"An advisory board is supposed to advise, but Jorge Mas went beyond that," says former Marti director Betancourt, echoing accusations made by Mas's political foes and by some Miami broadcast executives. "Now he's really running the [Radio Marti] operation." Betancourt's boss at the time, Richard Carlson, now a Public Broadcasting Corporation official, denies that, saying, "The advisory board doesn't run Marti."
That the two Miami stations chosen for Radio Marti broadcasts are widely known to be strongly supportive of Mas and the Foundation has raised suspicions and prompted complaints from those in the exile community who are not in Mas's camp. "It is our opinion that this is a mechanism to channel funds to local radio stations for the purpose of establishing a circuit of political protection," says Ramon Cernuda, the Miami-based representative of three dissident political organizations within Cuba. "In a way, Radio Marti, by paying these stations for time, is buying political insurance in the community and at the same time reinforcing its political objectives in Washington."
The Reagan administration's Cold War warriors who created Radio Marti and showered it with resources (the current annual budget is $19 million) expected Castro would do his best to block the U.S. signal. He did. Powerful electronic interference started immediately after the station began broadcasting on May 20, 1985. Then in 1990, when TV Marti went on the air, Cuba succeeded in obliterating Radio Marti's signal in many areas of the island by broadcasting its own programming on Radio Taino, directly over Marti's 1180-AM frequency. Even though Radio Marti continued to reach the island via shortwave broadcasts, the more reliable AM reception had been greatly diminished, according to officials.
In late fall of 1990, in response to this greatly increased jamming, the advisory board recommended Radio Marti lease commercial air time, executive director Skinner says. First, though, the FCC had to issue a formal determination that Cuba's jamming had reached the threshold level stipulated by the 1983 law. So in March 1991, Radio Marti requested such a ruling. The FCC complied. According to the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, the details of that determination are classified.
Soon thereafter, according to Voice of America spokesman Joe O'Connell, the Radio Marti staff proposed a 60-day test to explore broadcasting to Cuba via commercial stations on the mainland. An interagency policy coordinating committee chaired by the State Department agreed, provided "credible evidence could be obtained to show the stations we chose could be heard there."
O'Connell says the U.S. Information Agency, parent agency of VOA, then asked the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to monitor several AM radio frequencies that an earlier Radio Marti study indicated were being received in Cuba. Office of Cuba Broadcasting director Antonio Navarro says the Interests Section, the FCC, and two private consulting firms participated in evaluations of reception in Cuba of ten mainland stations.
Besides WAQI and WQBA, according to Navarro, the candidate stations included Miami's WWFE, WINZ, WVCG, and WCMQ, as well as WKWF in Key West, WNOG in Naples, WTKN in Pinellas Park, and clear-channel station WLAC in Nashville. (Clear-channel stations operate at the maximum 50,000 watts of power 24 hours per day, while most other AM stations are required by the FCC to either cut power at night -- when atmospheric conditions enable signals to travel greater distances -- or change the direction of their signal to avoid interfering with other stations at the same frequency.)
The results of the 1991 monitoring effort in Havana apparently weren't encouraging. According to the VOA's O'Connell, none of the stations came through very well. Again, however, details of that tehcnical information remain classified, says Antonio Navarro. Engineers at the two Washington consulting firms engaged by the government -- DuTreil Lundin and Rackley, and Cohen Dippel and Everist -- refuse to comment about their studies.
In the face of this disappointing data, another test was undertaken. In March of this year, a team of Radio Marti and FCC engineers guided a boat around the island to monitor reception of the various U.S. stations in different areas of Cuba. "Neither the monitoring by the Interests Section nor by the joint FCC effort showed adequate reception," O'Connell recalls. Once again, results of the joint FCC testing, Navarro says, are classified.
"The next step," continues O'Connell, "was the advisory board for Cuba Broadcasting wanted to exhaust all possibilities on this leasing business, to keep it alive, and they in one of their meetings or reports made reference to the Radio Marti department of audience research study showing WQBA and WAQI, respectively, had 21 and 9 percent listenership in Cuba. So broadcast leasing continued to be pursued, and Radio Marti proceeded accordingly, asking the consulting firm of Cohen Dippel and Everist to analyze the signal strength of WQBA and WAQI throughout Cuba. The results of that analysis did not rule out using either one."
Based on the consultants' new analysis, the advisory board decided it was worth trying broadcasts from commercial U.S. stations. "We kicked it around for a long time," remembers board member Joseph Glennon, a former Radio Free Europe official who lives in Boynton Beach. "The technical surveys were saying these Miami stations weren't heard too much around Cuba, but then we were getting something different from reports interviewing people coming over here. But the technicians were saying, `No, it's not getting in there.' So finally a couple more surveys were made, I guess, and we decided to go with it on a trial basis."
While decision-making deliberations of the advisory board are held behind closed doors and meeting minutes are classified, several board members now say they agreed to recommend leasing commercial air time but they made no decision about which stations to use. "We rely on the local people on the staff to give us advice," says Clair Burgener, the board member from California. "Their recommendation was for two stations. The only stations we as a board considered were those two [WQBA and WAQI]. We were satisfied these were reasonable purchases."
Ramon Cernuda and others who question the purchases dispute Radio Marti's surveys that show WQBA and WAQI as having the highest Cuban listenership of any U.S. station. "These are manipulated surveys they do for their own intents and purposes, and everyone knows it," Cernuda says flatly. The numbers are based on interviews with Cubans arriving at Miami International Airport. The General Accounting Office roundly criticized two previous Radio Marti audience-research reports two years ago, finding that similar airport interviews regarding TV Marti produced greatly exaggerated viewership estimates.
Navarro acknowledges the studies his office conducts aren't based on exact science, but he says they're the best information possible coming from a closed society. "It was worth a try," he says of the radio-leasing option. "We were under a recommendation from the advisory board to do it, we were able to do it by law, and we had some information. We'll try anything to get the signal over there."
Back in Miami, Radio Marti officials approached the managers of the two chosen stations, who agreed to sell an hour of air time five days a week for 35 days. Total cost to Radio Marti for both buys -- at $700 per hour -- would be $35,000. "It's been several months ago that they approached us," recalls WQBA general manager Herb Levin. "It was a negotiated price; it's really lower than we would charge. But I feel there's some advantage as with the public service aspect to be working together with Radio Marti. We think the programming of Radio Marti is of great interest to Spanish-speaking Cubans who normally can't hear the Marti signal here."
Enrique Baloyra, professor of political science at University of Miami and former participant in Radio Marti round-table discussions, sees more than a public-service advantage for the stations. "This is paid for by taxpayers," says Baloyra, who frequently criticizes the Cuban American National Foundation. "Private stations are not in the `business' of patriotism, or should not be. Chances are there could be the potential for abuse, in the sense of saying, `This is the official line. We're even broadcasting for VOA. That makes it official.'"
Besides, Baloyra adds, he's been told by Arnaldo Coro, a Cuban government engineer and a well-known authority on jamming, that WQBA and WAQI are the commercial U.S. stations Cuban authorities jam most heavily. (Attempts to reach Coro in Havana were unsuccessful.) Baloyra and others claim different Miami stations get through to the island better than WQBA and WAQI, particularly WRHC (Cadena Azul). But WRHC is known to be generally ideologically independent and adversarial toward the Cuban American National Foundation's hard line.
"It is a curious note," says Antonio Calatayud, Sr., executive vice president and director of WRHC, "that the two stations that have been attached to the politics of the Cuban American National Foundation are the ones that receive this kind of grant. In my opinion, it's also like a gift or payment for service rendered, and that's the truth."
"That's bullshit," counters Levin of WQBA. "There was no political decision-making at all. Marti wants to broaden their reach and this is a cheap way to do it effectively. I think Jorge Mas is a nice target, an easy hit, but he had nothing to do with this." Navarro adds that Radio Marti could go to other stations if current monitoring -- interviews with Cubans arriving at MIA -- shows WQBA and WAQI didn't do the job. "We have no interest," Navarro says, "in favoring one or the other or any of them."
But can any of Miami's Spanish-language stations do the job? Most say they can; they get letters from Cuban listeners, and newly arrived refugees tell them they hear American stations. Whether a Miami station is heard in Cuba depends on several variable factors, such as weather and time of day. Charles W. Bostian, a professor of electrical engineering at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg and an expert on jamming, says in any case a clear-channel station would most reliably reach Cuba. Some observers have suggested Radio Marti lease time on Caribbean stations closer to the island and less politically controversial. But with the Cuban government's sophisticated, often mobile, jamming devices, it's virtually impossible to predict how well any signal will get through.
"If you're going to go out and spend government money leasing time on stations that are simulcast in the Miami area, you have to be pretty sure of what you're doing," says Jim Skinner, executive director of the President's Advisory Board on Cuba Broadcasting. "The fact is, when you do exhaustive studies over at least twelve months, you come to the conclusion you don't know with any great degree of certainty how well any of these stations are received, because there's a tremendous amount of conflicting information."
Regardless of the outcome of the recent test period, Calatayud of WRHC says he intends to donate time to Radio Marti. One of his station's broadcasting towers was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew and its signal currently is less than its usual 50,000 watts. But as soon as the tower is fixed, Calatayud vows, he'll write to Radio Marti offering free time on Cadena Azul. "We are all in the crusade for liberation, for democracy in Cuba," he says. "And we're supposed to give something for it, no?
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.