Radio Free Miami
No one expected that Radio Marti's relocation to Miami from Washington would go smoothly. Since its creation in 1983, the short-wave station, which beams its broadcasts to Cuba, has been a controversial pull toy, tugged at one end by Washington and the other by Miami's Cuban exile community, principally businessman and power broker Jorge Mas Canosa. At the heart of the struggle was a desire to control its programming and the subsequent influence on Cubans living under Fidel Castro's regime. In other words, control of an arm of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.
Anyone watching (or listening) knew that, with the station finally splashing into Miami's overheated political cauldron, substantial and perhaps bloody change was ahead.
No one could predict the end of the story. Certainly no one anticipated that Mas Canosa, a prevailing presence at Radio Marti since the station's inception and its most powerful lobbyist for the funding that continues to pour out of Washington, would die suddenly last November at the age of 58. With his death, a leadership gap cracked open and the future of Radio Marti became a wild card in the already turbulent world of Miami's exile politics.
Although the station is still in transition, it is clearly being steered in new directions by Herminio San Roman, director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) -- which oversees daily operations -- and Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera, Radio Marti's new director. Some changes are quite innovative, such as the use of more interviews with independent journalists living in Cuba. But critics of other changes -- less news, more talk, and more and more talk that sounds exactly like AM exile radio -- are speaking about the "Miamization" of Radio Marti.
An El Nuevo Herald columnist, Puerto Rican journalist Marta Rodriguez, weighed in on the subject May 13. "Those who listen barely recognize the programming, confusing it with that of other well-known, strident Miami stations," wrote Rodriguez. "The recently appointed directors of [Radio Marti] have acted rapidly to ... offer a radio menu that, curiously, responds more to local political interests and their own than to the tastes of their island audience."
"Radio Marti now has a focus muy de Miami," says Enrique López Oliva, a history professor at University of Havana who also occasionally serves as a news correspondent or commentator for various foreign media. "It's more intransigent than it was before in Washington; all the new people seem to be more extremist. There's less news, there's more general talk. Now we prefer Radio Netherlands or BBC for news."
According to the federal government, the purpose of Radio Marti is to further U.S. foreign policy interests. (The same is true for TV Marti, which is funded on a smaller scale and is rarely seen in Cuba owing to jamming by the Cuban government. The combined annual Marti budgets are $23 million.) While broadcasting from Washington, news staffers were, according to their own accounts, scrupulous about holding to journalistic guidelines promulgated by the United States Information Agency (USIA), the parent agency for all federally funded broadcasting entities. Those guidelines call for balance, multiple sourcing, and strict avoidance of biased or judgmental language. Staffers say they were under such scrutiny from federal investigators and the press that they were ultraconscious of objectivity.
Before they went on the air, programs were evaluated by an editorial committee and reviewed by focus groups of newly arrived Cubans. A research department provided in-depth news analyses.
Today Radio Marti's journalistic standards appear to be changing, and the checks and balances exercised in Washington have been either eliminated or diluted until, in the opinion of many critics, they are ineffective. "What's going on [at the OCB] is a national disgrace and it's getting worse," contends Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Smith is a long-time and outspoken critic of the Marti stations and of Mas Canosa, whose strident politics were fixated on Castro's downfall and a free Cuba. But in this case Smith's sentiments echo those of his political opposites.
"Radio Marti could be the jewel in the crown of U.S. international broadcasting. But in the last year things have gone from bad to worse," agrees a Washington source familiar with OCB operations and long allied with Mas Canosa and conservative causes. "Radio Marti has always been very careful to husband its credibility, and what's happening is just crazy. There used to be multiple sources of control over what went on the air. San Roman has stripped them away."
The changes at Radio Marti may constitute, by accident or design, a change of mission for the station as it moves to the right from its formerly evenhanded (sometimes boring) delivery of international news to Cubans, who have little access to a broader perspective. As noted by critics, its voice is now frequently indistinguishable from that of exile radio and its unrelenting call for a Cuba libre in which exiles could once again hold power -- a dream not widely shared by Cubans living on the island. The majority of these are black or mulatto and their priority is not necessarily a completely different form of government. Most Cubans love their country even as they chafe under the poverty and the near-total absence of civil rights the Marxist regime has brought. They are grateful for free quality education and free medical care, despite a critical shortage of medicine. They have no interest in more radio reports from Miami exiles intent on educating them about U.S. democracy or reminding them of a "better" time when their country was ruled by rich white Cubans.
For his part, Herminio San Roman, a 40-year-old Cuban American who, before his presidential appointment to the OCB in 1997, was an attorney with the Miami law firm Adorno & Zeder and a player in Democratic politics, sticks to a party line about changes at Radio Marti. He disputes comparisons to Miami exile stations, saying that the only similarity with AM radio is "direct contact with our audience." He says he has no personal or political reason to tamper with the station's agenda: "I'm not a politician; I don't ever intend to run for office. I accepted this job first because it's an honor to serve this country that has adopted me, and at the same time to provide a service to the Cuban people."
San Roman insists that the station's programming changes are stylistic, not substantive, and are a response to new telecommunications technology. Even if that's true, the new style is disagreeable to Cubans: Listenership on the island appears to be drastically down. A department within the USIA recently conducted a survey but would not release the results to New Times. Three separate sources within the OCB, however, provided New Times with identical statistics from the survey: 26 percent of Radio Marti's Cuban audience now listens at least once a week, compared to 70 to 75 percent in past periodic surveys.
Despite San Roman's contentions, it is hard to accept that the majority of perceptible changes at Radio Marti are merely stylistic:
*A large new contingent of former or current employees of Miami Spanish-language AM stations has joined Radio Marti's staff, sometimes displacing veteran OCB workers. Some of the most ravening rightist personalities in South Florida now have their own federally funded shows, including a roundtable hosted by Miami's most popular (according to a local poll) exile media personality: Armando Perez Roura, who has lifted anti-Castro rhetoric to new heights in a manner that could be described as rococo bombast. Some listeners in Cuba complain there's less diversity in political or social views between participants in debate or discussion programs.
*Most of the rest of the news programming has converted to the live discussion and call-in format favored on exile stations. Thoroughly researched news analysis and more in-depth reporting is heard less; instead the watchword is immediacy.
*Listeners are being subjected for the first time on Radio Marti to the harsh and insistent language for which Miami exile stations are well-known. Miami's Spanish-language news announcers commonly employ a unique vocabulary in routine stories: Fidel Castro may be identified as "the tyrant" or sarcastically as the "maximum leader"; glib references will be made to "the abused Cuban people" or "the brutal regime." Despite Voice of America editorial guidelines that forbid "sweeping generalizations and evaluations" and "slander or attacks," such language, quieter but with the same vehement tone, is now emanating from Radio Marti.
*Of the two departments charged with assessing the effectiveness of Radio Marti programs, San Roman has eliminated one and cut back the other; station director Rodriguez-Tejera downsized the program review committee from nine people to four. Although there was always something numbingly bureaucratic in these processes, critics argue that with less listener and internal editorial input, San Roman and the new director now control the station.
*The fathers of Miami's two Cuban-American congressional representatives are now heard weekly on Radio Marti, leading some observers to suspect political self-interest on the part of San Roman.
*Some employees are angry about alleged threats and intimidation by San Roman. Early in his tenure, which began in March 1997, he removed the doors to some employees' offices and, according to several workers, isolated those not in his favor by moving them to distant offices or stripping them of responsibilities. San Roman says the door policy simply fostered better communication, and he "dares" his workers to prove that any of his actions amount to bullying.
Staffers are trying to take him up on his offer: Several have filed complaints against San Roman with the State Department, which is investigating the OCB.
The list of complaints -- formal and informal -- is long, but San Roman and Rodriguez-Tejera make short shrift of it. The new contributors from AM radio are experienced professionals, they say, which makes them better at their jobs. They contend that Perez Roura has as much right to be heard on Radio Marti as any other broadcaster.
Their rebuttals, however, cannot erase the fact that today's Radio Marti, for better or worse, is not the Radio Marti of the past.
Two months ago, in a small sunlit meeting room at a public relations office near the airport, a half-dozen reporters and photographers in jeans and shirts clustered at one end of a long conference table. They aimed their cameras and microphones at the four men seated at the table's other end, most of them in suits, their heads providing a foreground for bookshelves against a wall.
It was practically a tableau: Nothing appeared to be happening at this meeting, and no one seemed to be saying much, which in the surreal world of Cuban exile politics means that a great deal was happening if one could only decode it.
Those in the know understood that the meeting would become a Radio Marti reference point.
On this spring day, OCB director San Roman was boycotting the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting, which is charged with monitoring Radio Marti's effectiveness and which had gathered to collect information from San Roman about the station's sweeping program changes.
Such a boycott by the OCB's top official -- an act of blatant disrespect -- had never occurred before, and in fact would have been unthinkable in the past.
Without answers to their questions, the advisory board members could provide nothing for reporters, who were clamoring to know more about the rhyme and reason at the "new" Radio Marti. "We don't have any information either," said board member and veteran Miami radio host Salvador Lew. "We're in the same position as you."
Although the board operates in an advisory capacity for OCB overseers in Washington and cannot force anyone to attend its meetings, San Roman had sent a powerful message: He will not cowed by the board his predecessors took seriously.
The next day a letter and resolutions from the board arrived at the White House. "Significant problems have developed at Radio Marti and Television Marti since the appointment of Herminio San Roman as director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting," read one resolution. It called for an investigation of Radio Marti programming and of the contracting of personnel who may have conflicts of interest.
The news reports that followed generally credited the morass to an acrimonious power struggle between the new OCB leaders and the old guard of former Mas Canosa allies. Joseph Duffey, director of the USIA, defended San Roman, saying he had "brought credible leadership" to the office.
But San Roman's refusal to cooperate with the board could not be dismissed so easily by insiders. True, in some regards it had been just another red-hot chapter in the simmering history of Radio Marti, which since its birth on the anniversary of Cuban Independence Day -- May 20, 1985 -- has been a story of larger-than-life personalities, suspected misbehavior, and governmental investigations.
This time, though, the conflict went beyond a typical political spoils struggle. Until now the action surrounding the Martis had taken place in Washington; the infighting and intrigue were part of the Washington game. But now the turmoil was embedded in the Miami political community.
Jorge Mas Canosa, founding chairman of the influential Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), had long wanted to relocate the Marti stations to Miami, his base of operations and also the city that is as psychologically close to Cuba as one can get without actually being there. Mas Canosa and the proponents of the move argued that the Martis belonged in Miami because of that proximity, because experts on Cuban affairs were more plentiful here, and because the city's Latin labor pool is extensive. Opponents of the move saw it as just another way for Mas Canosa to exert more control by removing the stations from Washington's immediate oversight.
Congress didn't want to fight Mas Canosa over the move. As chairman of the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting for nearly thirteen years until his death, Mas Canosa exerted significant -- some say excessive -- influence not only over the OCB's affairs, but over the generous funding and operational autonomy accorded the Marti stations in Congress. No one took him lightly. If Mas Canosa had lived, it's not unreasonable to think that Herminio San Roman would have showed up at the most recent President's Advisory Board meeting after all.
Still, it appeared to many observers that Mas Canosa's personal influence was waning when he died. The world of exile politics was shifting, and not always in his direction. The tough anti-Castro line he espoused was being questioned in Washington more seriously than ever before as Pope John Paul II prepared to make his historic visit to the island. Within the microcosm of the OCB, its newly appointed director, San Roman, had replaced or demoted most of the senior people identified as being either Mas Canosa allies or simply having cooperated with Mas Canosa allies. As far as Mas Canosa and the majority of board members were concerned, the worst offenses were the new hires and the programs being suddenly broadcast by San Roman without the customary board discussion and review.
Mas Canosa probably would not have been disturbed by San Roman's programming changes on the basis of political philosophy; in fact, the new AM sound-alike shows mirrored his own politics more closely than had earlier, more balanced reporting from Washington's Radio Marti.
But he would have been unsettled because he was accustomed to having his way, in Washington politics and at the radio station that had been his brainchild. Ronald Reagan had appointed him as the first chairman of the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting, a position he never had to relinquish; neither George Bush nor Bill Clinton saw fit to replace him.
The concept of Radio Marti was similar to that of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, so-called surrogate stations that supplied information to nations without a free press. Even though Voice of America broadcast in Spanish and Portuguese throughout Latin American, and still does, Radio Marti's mission was specifically to promote U.S.-style democracy in Cuba.
Thus, says John Nichols, associate professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University and a specialist in international telecommunications, both the right and left could compromise (and be appeased) regarding the always vexing Cuba problem by the same approach, one that was peaceful and nonconfrontational but potentially able to infiltrate Cuban society with American values. "One of the reasons for Radio and later TV Marti was to sort of split the difference between hawks and doves on Cuba," says Nichols. "No doubt Mas Canosa exploited the situation very effectively, and they in effect became his stations, but they probably would not have existed had not Mas Canosa been around."
Loquacious and charismatic, Mas Canosa was frequently accused of trying to influence the radio station's news content. As chairman of the advisory board that has no authority over Marti's programming, Mas Canosa could attempt this only in broad strokes -- such as by influencing the hiring of personnel who would take direction from him -- instead of by executive order. The first Radio Marti director, Ernesto Betancourt, resigned in 1990, saying he'd been pushed out by Mas Canosa because he wouldn't cede to pressures from the CANF relating to news coverage. The degree of Mas Canosa's influence over the broadcasts to Cuba became a constant question.
By the late Eighties and early Nineties, as the clout of CANF and its political action committee was growing, Mas Canosa's influence-building tactics were also under increasing attack from both long-time enemies and turncoat allies. Some prominent Cuban exile activists, including well-known writer and 22-year political prisoner Armando Valladares, broke with Mas Canosa in highly publicized disputes. In 1992 a 60 Minutes segment and a documentary carried by the Public Broadcasting Service portrayed Mas Canosa as superpowerful, ruthless, and unscrupulous in retaliating against opponents.
At about the same time, a series of accusations against Mas Canosa by OCB employees led to a flurry of news reports and eventually to an investigation by the USIA's Office of the Inspector General. Employees in Radio Marti's research department alleged that Mas Canosa personally and illegally attempted to direct or influence news coverage; that audience research figures were skewed to show an inflated listenership; and that Radio Marti director Rolando Bonachea, a Mas Canosa ally, punished employees who spoke out against him, Mas Canosa, or other managers.
The investigation, the claims and counterclaims, went on for years. Preliminary findings from the investigation were released in 1995 and appeared to substantiate the allegations against Mas Canosa. But later in 1995, as part of an extensive reorganization within the USIA, the Office of the Inspector General was eliminated and all its cases transferred to the State Department. Although the State Department investigation continues to examine the programming content of Radio Marti, Mas Canosa's role obviously became moot with his death.
Even during the investigation, Mas Canosa's pull in Washington was enormous. Insiders credit it with Congress's stealthy decision to move the Marti stations to Miami, mandated in a 1996 appropriations bill. Despite calls from several lawmakers for open hearings on the move, none were conducted. According to a congressional committee staffer, the relocation was regarded as "a complete shift in U.S. policy" and therefore worthy of scrutiny. Critics warned that the Martis would become rogue stations, out of reach of Washington and controlled by Miami's extremist exile community -- a warning that has gained credence today.
But the criticism didn't matter. No one was going to seriously oppose Jorge Mas Canosa.
Despite Mas Canosa's power, periodic pleas arose from the press and presidential advisers or Congress to infuse the advisory board with new blood. In mid-1996 the Clinton administration was said by some leading newspapers to be ready to loosen Mas Canosa's hold on the board. Rumors circulated about successors, at least one of whom was actually interviewed about her "plans" for the board -- before she disappeared from public view. Mas Canosa stayed in place.
Now that there's an undeniable vacancy, the top candidate being mentioned for the chairmanship is straight-talking State Rep. Annie Betancourt, a Democrat from West Kendall, who confirms she has spoken with the White House and Sen. Robert Torricelli's office.
New blood did arrive at the Martis, however, in the considerable personage of Herminio San Roman, who in 1997 replaced Richard Lobo, a Miami television executive who had resigned as director of the OCB in frustration after trying to introduce a plan for cost cutting and reorganization. San Roman is both willful and politically sophisticated. In fact, some observers say, his primary aim in hiring prominent Cubans as show hosts is to strengthen his local political connections.
As with Mas Canosa, there are those who think San Roman wields his power too widely. Some employees say he is the real problem in the operation, that he has provoked unprecedented labor unrest. While there are also plenty of workers who say morale is high and the personnel shifts reflect normal federal office politics, employees' union officials say their members are unhappier and more intimidated than they've ever been.
Hope Butler, of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), wonders why she gets tapped on the shoulder and beckoned into darkened cubicles when she visits the OCB office in Miami to speak about labor issues. "Nobody will make an appointment, but they ask me, 'Can I call you at home?' What the hell is wrong about meeting in the office? People are scared to death. San Roman's management style is affecting my whole bargaining unit."
Complaints have been filed against San Roman for his allegedly harsh management style, and the union is consulting with its lawyers about legal action to rectify purported unfair labor practices. A new high-level governmental investigation has been launched to evaluate Radio Marti's programming.
Although Mas Canosa and San Roman came from different political corners and are not similarly motivated -- Mas Canosa was a zealot and San Roman is an ambitious federal appointee -- they both kept Radio Marti in an uproar of divisive exile politics and have disenchanted employees who believe they cannot do their jobs. The unsteady beat goes on.
In the small foyer of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, larger-than-life framed color portraits of Bill Clinton and Jose Marti, the Cuban father of independence, hang side by side on a powder-blue wall. They face a walk-through metal detector and x-ray machine. Over the past year, most of the OCB has been operating out of these temporary offices and studios set up in a sprawling former car dealership northwest of Miami International Airport.
The director of Radio Marti, Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera, strides down a blue-carpeted hallway toward one of the studios, where his live show, Breaking Ground, will start at 11:00 a.m., ten minutes from now. Rodriguez-Tejera, 46 years old and a former cohost of a current-events program at La Cubanisima (WQBA-AM 1140), has been director of Radio Marti for about six months. His show exemplifies the most salient and positive changes in programming.
Rodriguez-Tejera's producer stops him in the hall. "The number for Ana Luisa Lopez Baeza is wrong," he says. "We reached someone speaking in English."
Rodriguez-Tejera wheels around and backtracks to his office to find another phone number for Lopez, an independent journalist in Havana who is scheduled to be among the guests on today's show. She is affiliated with CubaPress; this and other independent agencies on the island are increasingly consulted by outside media. During the papal visit, many independent journalists were contracted by foreign news outlets to file reports. These assignments can be arduous; modern communications equipment such as computers, fax machines, and portable phones are unavailable for most independent journalists, who usually work out of private homes. Sometimes, they say, they must move from house to house to escape harassment from government agents or sympathizers.
Rodriguez-Tejera will also chat by phone with Jesus Llanes Pelletier (both he and Lopez are in Havana) and Omar del Pozo, a recently released political prisoner now living in Montreal. The news of the moment concerns Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien's visit to Havana.
Soon Rodriguez-Tejera is back in the studio and seated at a large table. "Ana Luisa, we'll start with you," he says. "How would you evaluate this visit from a journalistic standpoint?"
"The government is creating in the press the perception they want to give," Lopez replies. "They're making a lot of the fact that this is the first time a Canadian prime minister has come here. They're presenting Cuba as a country that respects human rights, but in reality all Cubans are aware of the truth."
Llanes Pelletier, a former Castro ally later imprisoned for turning against the revolution, thinks the Castro government is using the visits of Chretien and Pope John Paul II as political currency in the world opinion market. "By coming here, [such dignitaries] legitimize the policies of Cuba," Llanes Pelletier says. "But prisoners remain in prison in violation of our own judicial laws, and many people are living just moments away from being thrown in jail."
Under Rodriguez-Tejera's leadership, a slew of new shows has gone on-air that, because of live or call-in formats, serve as forums for island Cubans to speak out about their experiences. The first of these was Rodriguez-Tejera's own. Now there is also Speaking Seriously, a half-hour talk show hosted by veteran journalist Clara Dominguez, who often interviews her colleagues in Cuba. There is The News as It Is, which isn't new but has been changed to a live format, again with extensive interviews with people in Cuba. Its hosts are well-known former AM reporters.
Rodriguez-Tejera says he's just getting started, that he has recently begun to record and air roundtable discussions conducted in Cuba. He hopes the subjects will range from prostitution and alcoholism to racial discrimination. So far only two discussions on the tamer topic of independent labor unions have been taped. "We're not doing everything right, but we're not afraid of criticism," he says. "If there's going to be change in Cuba, Radio Marti will play a tremendous role."
Rodriguez-Tejera's management style is more conciliatory than San Roman's, according to many employees who have become his fans. "I am allowed to do my job as a journalist, and I am doing my job," says news producer Cristina Sanson. "The news is more aggressive as far as Cuban issues are concerned. I feel very strongly the change is positive."
Nine months ago Sanson, then news director for TV Marti, was demoted and shunted to a no-work job after she publicly objected to some of San Roman's policies. Of all the OCB employees who can claim they have been retaliated against, by whomever, Sanson had perhaps the most clear-cut case. Nonetheless Rodriguez-Tejera brought her over to Radio Marti in February, and she says her bitterness is gone, largely because of Rodriguez-Tejera's morale-building influence.
Rodriguez-Tejera's desire for more immediate contact with Cubans is positive in itself, but the new emphasis is not without genuine weaknesses.
A concern expressed by the exile community involves the dangers of live broadcasts to Cuba: Many Miami exiles are convinced that some supposedly normal Cuban citizens calling in are really government agents in masquerade. "Don't you think that is dangerous, to have Castro's people talking to you?" Salvador Lew asked Rodriguez-Tejera during a meeting this past February of the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting.
"How do I know they are Castro's people?" replied Rodriguez-Tejera. "I am not a policeman. I cannot tell by the telephone who is a Cuban agent and who is not. Do you want me to censor the calls? We should be isolated from the people in Cuba?"
Lew's suspicion may be more than exile community paranoia. Calls by government plants are indeed possible, if not probable. Still, in seeking more participation by the island's apparently growing number of independent journalists, Radio Marti is joining television, radio, and Internet media from all over the world in strengthening their ties with voices inside Cuba.
The problems related to Marti's new talk-radio format are compounded by the lack of in-depth news reporting that now characterizes the station's programming and that is pandemic on AM radio, whose approach to news is live talk and whose audience is mostly Miami exiles instead of Cubans on the island.
Marti's radio news used to consist of substantial coverage along the lines of Nightline or National Public Radio programs: first a taped background report or interview, then on to a panel of experts who would discuss the issue. "There's no background, no investigative reporting any more," says a staffer who requested anonymity. "All the shows are the same. It's like Larry King for 24 hours."
Maybe so, but the shift is hardly surprising. Although Rodriguez-Tejera has a sound reputation as a journalist, and although his effort to reach into Cuba for new programming is astute, he is also a product of the exile community's one-note version of news reporting. When he resigned at WQBA, he accused management of "de-Cubanizing" its format by canceling certain shows and adding others whose contents were less Cuba-specific. He was named director of Radio Marti immediately after his resignation, and within weeks a dozen new reporters and announcers came to the station directly from exile radio or TV stations, some as permanent salaried employees and others on contract. Although it's hardly unusual for any new ship captain to surround himself with sailors he knows and trusts, Rodriguez-Tejera's pool of cronies was very different from anything ever seen in Washington.
Some new programs have attracted attention not because of their content but because of their personnel. Armando Perez Roura, still a popular host for Radio Mambi (WAQI-710 AM), now provides Radio Marti with a one-hour roundtable, Patriots' Forum, that is a pared-down version of his two-hour AM radio show.
Julio Estorino's commentary, Frank Talk, bears a name nearly identical name to that of his former show, Speaking Frankly, on WQBA, where he was a close associate of Rodriguez-Tejera. He was best known at his former station for his long-running anti-Castro diatribes and humorous segments in which he made fun of Castro and company.
One program is hosted by Enrique Ros, an accomplished history scholar who also happens to be the father of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, one of Dade County's two Cuban representatives to Congress. Rafael Diaz-Balart, father of Lincoln Diaz-Balart -- Dade's other Cuban U.S. representative -- is a regular guest on another Radio Marti show.
For each of these hires and contracts, San Roman has the same defense: Each person is simply the most qualified for the job. And as for any appearance of a conflict of interest, such as airtime for the fathers of local politicians, San Roman says it isn't a problem, since many of the new contracts do not involve a salary. "They're extremely respected professionals in the community, and they're not charging us a penny," he says. "I don't think it's fair for us to censor highly capable, intelligent individuals."
San Roman's Washington overseers have no problem with Miami heavyweights shaping the content of the Marti stations. "Both Mr. Ros and Mr. Diaz-Balart have extensive backgrounds in issues relating to Cuba and were respected authorities long before their children reached Congress," says Voice of America spokesman Joseph O'Connell. He adds that, because Ros, Diaz-Balart, and some other well-known radio personalities are not being paid, they "can't be considered in the employ of the United States government."
Plenty of knowledgeable observers think that's nonsense. "The smell is that these people are being given federal jobs. They're performing a federal function," says the Washington source familiar with OCB operations and allied with the late Jorge Mas Canosa. "My view is that this pattern of hiring is a possibly unlawful activity, with the common denominator being that it seems to benefit San Roman personally. It's an abomination and a violation of the most important principals upon which Radio Marti is based to put Perez Roura on the air."
That there are so many eager volunteers is hardly surprising. They see more than the opportunity to help further the mission of Radio Marti and exile volunteers' own dreams of bringing democracy to Cuba. Every Cuban knows that radio is the best and virtually the only medium by which anyone in the United States can become personally known to the Cuban population, a status coveted by many who for years have been readying themselves to establish business and/or political ties with the island after Castro's demise.
Although the ambitious volunteers are not novel, Radio Marti's sudden enthusiasm for them may constitute a policy change. According to one high government source, many people have always volunteered to appear on Radio Marti for free. Their offers were declined, the source says, to preclude the appearance of favoritism by making special volunteer arrangements for some and not others.
There is one more flaw in Radio Marti coverage, according to many observers: the decrease in oversight.
Before San Roman came to the OCB, ideas for new programs were discussed by an editorial committee and, if they made it past that stage, programs were usually given a trial run or the ideas for them were tested on focus groups. A field research department conducted interviews with recent arrivals and visitors from Cuba. Although programming by committee is cumbersome and inexact, the process was a sincere attempt to test ideas for their suitability to Radio Marti's mission.
Today there is no editorial committee. Pilot programs usually consist of written proposals, and the last focus groups were convened in September of last year. The result is that San Roman and Rodriguez-Tejera are free to program the station at will, although San Roman says that arbitrary authority is not the reason for the revisions. He doesn't have the budget for all that testing, he says, and anyway, they are unnecessary with experienced personnel onboard. "You do a pilot show when you have a person without experience," he argues. "Why do you need to spend time on pilots with a well-known personality? Do you think I need a pilot to bring in Willy Chirino or Gloria Estefan?"
Certainly San Roman and Rodriguez-Tejera are still experimenting; perhaps there's hope that the station will move closer to its stated mission. As for whether government investigations will result in change, many onlookers are not hopeful. "Radio Marti is a mess," says Wayne Smith of Johns Hopkins. "There is an Office of the Inspector General investigation going on now, but no one thinks it will make the slightest bit of difference because whatever they come up with, [VOA director] Duffey is not exactly Mr. Courageous, and the administration won't do anything."
There is one more thing to consider: If the station holds to its present course, how significant will the consequences be?
Many Cubans and Americans have the sense it may not matter as much as those embroiled in the debate believe. "You know, the new generation isn't interested in Radio Marti anyway. They want to wear jeans and new shoes," says long-time Havana journalist Nestor Valles. "They're not political. They don't care who's in the government. They just want to dance in the discos."
Pennsylvania State University professor John Nichols suggests such sentiments are predictable. "It's fairly common in communist regimes in the eleventh hour that a significant percentage of people become depoliticized, like a waterlogged sponge," he says.
But he adds that the Marti stations are losing relevance for other reasons as well: Washington bureaucrats are content for the OCB to go south and handle its own affairs. "It's partly the last gasp of a bipolar foreign policy," he says of this laissez-faire attitude. "As institutional control of the Martis moves to Miami, the USIA and the President's Advisory Board can't rein it in, so the content gets more and more political, more and more shrill, more the voice of the exile community. And, as it happens, heard less by the average Cuban.
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