The Limp Blimp Also Rises

TV Marti is dead," Democratic Rep. David Skaggs of Colorado said one month ago. "Let's hold last rites for it and move on."

"To stop funding for TV Marti would be a propaganda victory for Fidel Castro," countered Andy Brack, an aide for South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings, a fellow Democrat. "And [Hollings] is not going to stand for giving the last Stalinist Communist a freebie."

The dueling invectives, printed in a July 21 New Times story entitled "Tube or Not Tube," aptly defined the battle lines in the debate on whether to keep alive Radio Marti's sister station, which beams news and entertainment programming to Cuba. This past week Hollings's camp won the fight: A U.S. House and Senate conference committee okayed more than $11 million in 1994-95 appropriations for TV Marti, adding to the $72 million this nation has invested in the propaganda tool since it went on the air in 1990. By Friday both the House of Representatives and the Senate had formalized the funding.

Broadcast from an unmanned dirigible that is only able to operate during the wee hours of each day, TV Marti has always been a target for Fidel Castro (whose technicians are able to block its signal) and for skeptics in the U.S. (who argue that the station is irreparably feeble and a waste of taxpayers' money). One New York Times editorial went so far as to dub the project the "limp blimp." Skaggs, a staunch critic, had succeeded in attaching to last year's appropriation a provision that a panel of experts convene to determine whether TV Marti was "consistently being received by a sufficient Cuban audience to warrant its continuation." This past March the panel issued its findings: "TV Marti's broadcasts are not consistently received by a substantial number of Cubans.... Whatever TV Marti's shortcomings, they are negligible compared to its inability to reach its intended audience."

To Skaggs the finding represented a clear call to dismantle TV Marti, per the terms of the previous year's appropriations bill. But not to Joe Duffey, who as director of the U.S. Information Agency had assembled the panel. And not to Senator Hollings, a longtime champion of issues held dear by the Cuban-American community. Proponents of TV Marti argued semantics: To say something wasn't "substantial," they contended, didn't mean it wasn't "sufficient," especially given the current climate of desperation in Cuba.

In a conference committee showdown, as Cuban refugees were setting post-Mariel records for abandoning the island, the junior congressman was no match for the senior senator. As one congressional source puts it, "Nobody wanted to seem soft on Castro now."

Not only did Hollings secure for TV Marti all the money the Clinton administration had requested, but he also included an additional one million dollars to convert the station from VHF to UHF, a move suggested by the panel as a way to enhance access. (Joe Duffey had not requested funding for the switch in frequencies, and had acknowledged in his report to Congress that no one was certain whether the new, untested strategy would be an improvement.)

Andy Brack, Hollings's press secretary, was gracious in victory. He says simply, "The senator is glad to see that TV Marti is funded for another year.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede