Radio and TV Martí: Washington Guns after Castro at Any CostBy: COHA Research Associate Katie Harr
The following is an executive summary of a report on Radio and TV Martí. For the complete document, please scroll down.
In the face of a sweeping debt and budgetary crisis currently afflicting the U.S. economy, the passage of the FY 2006 budget witnessed a brutal bloodletting of vital domestic programs from education and child welfare to Medicaid. At the same time, Congress, at the White House’s passionate urging, allocated an additional $10 million to purchase a specially equipped aircraft to transmit the broadcasts of the long-standing anti-Castro media project, Radio and TV Martí. This figure comes on top of the $27 million the media operations already receive annually. Since its founding, the Martí concept has been a “bridge to nowhere.” Nevertheless, almost half a billion dollars have been thrown away in the project.
As in the past, this year’s funds were routinely granted despite what have proven to be fatal weaknesses in the daily operations of Radio and TV Martí, namely no audience, no legitimacy, no professionalism – with the whole enterprise representing a colossal waste of taxpayer funds. The Martí operation’s most hard-hitting critics, including highly regarded neutral specialists, have not been able to persuade Congress to shut it down. In their evaluations, these critics allege that the whole venture is little better than a glaring boondoggle, which mainly serves as a propaganda machine spewing its tendentious product to a miniscule audience. It must be seen as little more than a custom made product to service the radical rightwing fringe of the Miami Cuban community, and a act as job-bank for unemployed ideologues within its fold.
As mentioned above, over the past 20 years, the highly criticized Martí operations have absorbed close to $500 million of public funds. This huge figure has generated a number of spirited attempts in Congress to cut – if not completely eliminate – Martí’s funding. But such initiatives have been stifled by thunderous recriminations and even open threats from Miami’s lethal politicians, led by Miami and Dade county’s rabidly rightwing Congressional delegation composed of the Diaz-Balart brothers and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. The South Florida exile community has been able to purchase such pervasive influence as a result of years of working a brilliant strategy based on significant, but still relatively modest, financial largesse to both Republican and Democratic politicians. By means of this alchemistic process, hundreds of thousands of dollars in private campaign contributions to the White House and members of Congress are converted into hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds for programs enacted by Congress that are used to bankroll anti-Castro groups and which are aimed at destroying the Castro regime.
Thus, the continued funding of such a certifiably questionable project as the Martís in many ways reveals the long reach of Miami’s Cuban community into the U.S. legislative agenda. The political process has already witnessed its uncanny ability to convert carefully targeted campaign contributions into raw ideological, ineffectual hard-line projects aimed at deconstructing a Cuban society that is perpetually in Miami’s cross-hairs.
The shameful willingness of local and national politicians to bend their knees to South Florida’s financial backing, while egregiously pillaging the public treasury on its behalf, results in the squandering of hundreds of millions of dollars on worthless enterprises like Radio and TV Martí, while at the same time much-needed domestic social welfare programs are slashed or eliminated. This should be cause for national outrage.
Radio and TV Martí:
Miami’s Children of Scorn
- At a time when the domestic budget is being savaged by meat-cleaver cuts in its social programs, Congress’ FY 2006 appropriations include an outrageous $10 million plane for a failed Radio and TV Martí project
- Funding Radio and TV Martí reveals the unprecedented reach of the rightwing extremist segment of Miami’s Cuban community into the U.S. legislative process and the public purse
- Radio and TV Martí is almost entirely characterized by propagandistic low-quality programming, mismanagement, and a striking inability to reach the intended Cuban island audience
- Miami is able to almost alchemistically convert hundreds of thousands of dollars in private campaign contributions to Republican and even Democratic political campaigns, and in return has received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for their initiatives that do nothing else but fuel their ideological passions at the expense of the squandering of public funds that produce no public good
It has been over forty years since the Cuban Revolution, an event which persuaded hundreds of thousands of Cuban would-be refugees to reach U.S. soil. These Cubans were sometimes able to access their private fortunes, and what they could not bring in physical wealth, they brought in money-making know how and a drive to succeed. Helped by U.S. government handouts to assist them in getting started, many hard-line anti-Castro Cuban exiles learned the value of political giving as a good investment, and while initial contributions were characteristically modest, once they got established in their new country, the pattern of political giving, though subject to fluctuations, has been on a general upward trend.
Although Cuban-American monetary donations are relatively meager in comparison to some political and business-oriented lobbies, anti-Castro giving to both Democrats and Republicans by Miami’s Cuban-American community dwarfs the donations of almost every other foreign policy interest group in the United States. According to one source, between the years of 1979-2000 the total amount of Cuban-American political money donated was approximately $8,821,202, with additional millions in soft money and backdoor financing going unrecorded. This sum was able to buy them the ear and support of legislators, on both sides of the aisle, as well as project their influence directly into the Oval Office. Such sway has been manifested in the form of hundreds of millions of American tax-payer dollars being spent on anti-Castro, pro-embargo programs that have been obtained by targeted campaign contributions to U.S. politicians, often only in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range. In many cases, U.S. government spending was earmarked directly for Cuban American non-governmental organizations both for use on the island and to finance them here at home, such as Acción Democrática Cubana, an exile group committed to supporting Cuba’s tiny dissident population. In the past 9 years, USAID has provided over $34 million in grants to such organizations in order to promote “Civil Development through Information Dissemination” programs, which can also be accurately described as a public propaganda effort aimed at categories of citizens who are viewed as not being sufficiently hard-line in their attitude towards Castro. However, some of the more candid of these groups admit that much of their aid does not reach the intended dissidents, and a USAID-commissioned audit in 2000 by PricewaterhouseCoopers questioned USAID’s ability to monitor the effectiveness of these alleged pro-democracy programs.
The latest major U.S. disbursement, which was strenuously lobbied by Miami’s exile elites, is a $10 million charge to acquire a specialized communication aircraft which will be turned into a dramatically updated platform to transmit TV Martí broadcasts to Cuba in an effort to overcome Cuba’s successful jamming of the station. Though the original Batista-loyal Cuban exile cadres are fast dwindling due to mortality, there is a new generation of anti-Castro Cuban-American militants willing to take the reins in the struggle against Havana. This reality is fully apparent in the results. Brought about by aggressive lobbying and their embedded political clout, the Cuban lobby has successfully maneuvered the delivery of the aircraft which costs the U.S. taxpayers about the same as the cumulative amount of campaign donations given by Miami constituents to all political causes.
Waging the Anti-Castro War
For more than four decades of determined, but usually ill-conceived efforts to rid Cuba of its communist regime, Washington’s perpetual nemesis, Fidel Castro, has maintained a lasting grip on the island. As the unadulterated spleen which substitutes for a policy towards the island continues, the Bush administration has attempted to further its hangman’s noose strategy against Havana through an unremitting policy of stricter enforcement of measures meant to asphyxiate the island, tighter economic sanctions, heightened restrictions on travel and remittances, and a cross-the-board belligerent attitude exemplified by the somewhat banal sign spat now being conducted out of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana against Cuban authorities.
One of the longstanding measures historically employed by Washington as a parry against the Cuban government, and now being tenaciously revived by the Bush Administration, is Radio and TV Martí. Yet, the effectiveness and value of these propaganda-spewing efforts—whose purported mission is to provide the Cuban people with access to a free flow of reliable information unavailable to them on the island—is as contentious as most other aspects of U.S.-Cuban engagements. However, despite growing, and often savage criticisms of the operation from its detractors, the Bush administration has pledged its wholehearted support and the public wallet to Martí’s faltering cause. In its the 2006 budget, the White House went so far as to ask Congress for an additional $10 million to purchase a specially equipped aircraft to transmit the broadcasts, on top of the $27 million the media project already receives annually.
The above funds were awarded despite deeply disturbing problems with the project, namely its low quality and highly-biased programming, its abject cronyism, its paucity of professionalism, and an admittedly tenuous ability to reach anything but a very restricted audience. As a result of these issues, and the project’s mainly wasted, but certainly generous budget (due to the perseverance of Governor Jeb Bush’s office operating in tandem with Miami’s hard-line anti-Havana legions) Radio and TV Martí are beginning to get the close scrutiny they well deserve. This is especially true as their opponents have ramped up their allegations that the whole venture is in fact little better than a ill-reputed rape of the treasury and a propaganda machine for the radical right-wing of the Miami Cuban community, as well as a job-bank for unemployed anti-Havana ideologues.
Good Business If You Can Get It
Radio Martí was established in 1985, with TV Martí following five years later. Its creation was the direct consequence of heavy lobbying by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) under the leadership of Miami’s late strongman and CANF head, Jorge Mas Canosa. The formation of Radio and TV Martí is often looked upon as one of the CANF’s and Mas Canosa’s greatest achievements, though some would contend that the project’s only real success has been to absorb massive quantities of taxpayer funds. Nevertheless, the Mas Canosa cabal wielded lethal political influence when it came to such projects and possessed the leverage to hasten the controversial broadcasting plan’s speedy, almost pro forma approval.
Another prime supporter of the 1983 Broadcasting to Cuba Act, which allowed for the later formation of Radio Martí, was then Senator Paula Hawkins (R-FL), who, according to an Open Secrets report (The Cuban Connection: Cuban American Money in U.S. Elections, 1979-2000) received more than $126,000 in campaign contributions from the Cuban-American community through both individuals and various PACs, during her term in office from 1980-1986. Shortly thereafter, the Television Broadcasting to Cuba Act was introduced by Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) and Representative William Broomfield (R-MI), and passed as part of a larger appropriations bill sponsored by Representative Dante Fascell (D-FL). Again, according to Open Secrets, both Representative Fascell and Senator Hollings were the benefactors of substantial funds from wealthy Cuban Americans throughout their tenure, with the former receiving $97,000 during his years in office, and the latter walking away with more than $94,000 since 1979. These gifts were able to earn back a 100-fold return in sought after federal programs to promote hostile U.S. government conduct toward the Castro regime.
Twenty years and almost $500 million later, the U.S. government continues to foot the bill for Radio and TV Martí’s operations. Currently, Radio Martí broadcasts on shortwave radio AM and FM frequencies from transmitters in Florida, North Carolina, and California. Until recently, TV Martí had been broadcasting on UHF channels from a blimp stationed above Cudjoe Key, Florida, until that vehicle was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. In recent years, the TV programming also has been transmitted for a few hours a week on VHF channels from an EC-130E/J Commando Solo (C-130) airborne platform, and also has been available from the Direct-to-Home satellite service which delivers signals to Cubans with satellite dishes. However, the distribution through satellite service is extremely limited, as satellite dishes are not only expensive, but also are illegal on the island.
Ongoing modifications aimed at improving Martí’s broadcasting have absorbed increasing funds, yet notable impediments remain. In its early years, the operation had the enthusiastic backing of “the Godfather of Cuban anticommunism,” in the person of Jorge Mas Canosa, the powerful multi-millionaire and Czar of the exile community, who also exercised control over the Martís’ Presidential Advisory Board. In turn, the media operation was backed by politicians whose support can be better explained by local and national pandering for the financial support of Miami’s wealthy zealots, whatever the actual merits of the project. And from polluted soil came rotten fruit, as the project has been continually afflicted by chronic failures and flagrant acts of ineptitude and non-professionalism in carrying out its tendentious objectives.
From the inception of the U.S. media operations targeting Cuba, there have been criticisms regarding both its philosophical approach and its programming content, which over time have earned it profoundly negative evaluations regarding the station’s steadily deteriorating level of professionalism. The Office on Cuban Broadcasting (OCB), which manages Radio and TV Martí, is currently under the weak jurisdiction of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the International Broadcasting Bureau. Though the Office of Cuban Broadcasting is required to adhere to the same regulatory standards established in the 1994 International Broadcasting Act, as amended in 1998 (which establishes basic standards of journalism for all U.S. government non-military international broadcasting endeavors such as the Voice of America) Radio and TV Martí have, at various times, been accused of gross violations of their mandate. Regarding Martí, this has taken the form of repeated reprimands and calls for Martí’s internal restructuring from various regulatory bodies. Yet the OCB has all but ignored this stream of negative evaluations, including some conveying such serious charges as the project’s unsatisfactory performance in implementing substantial changes in the quality of its content and the coherence of its internal organization. In 1996, both the U.S. General Accounting Office and the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigated Radio and TV Martí in response to allegations from station insiders, including Bob Sherman, former deputy director of the facility, and four research analysts, that their jobs had been eliminated as reprisals for their political views and criticisms of the station. They further alleged wrongdoing regarding the stations’ violation of policy and their broadcasting charters, as well as improper personnel actions. While the OIG eventually found that there was inadequate evidence showing that the complaining employees had been unjustly punished, it did, however, find “a pattern of personnel mismanagement,” including deficiencies in procedures for hiring, documenting duties and reassigning staff.
As early as March 1994, Radio and TV Martí’s Advisory Panel concluded “improvement was needed because of politicized journalistic decisions and an oversized and growing share of coverage [being] devoted to the Cuban-American community.” The tempo of criticisms over bias mounted after the station’s 1998 relocation to Miami from its original headquarters in Washington D.C. In the words of Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) “…Moving the facilities to Miami sacrificed its effectiveness, making it simply another Miami radio station. Radio Martí should be relocated and every effort should be made to end its image as a mouthpiece of the Miami Cuban American community.” Even the station’s former news director and right-wing author and activist, Jay Mallin, acknowledges, “The station has gone steadily downhill…under a series of …totally incompetent directors,” adding, “Today it’s just another Miami radio station.”
Calls for reform have not only been ignored by the station, but many politicians are willing to turn a blind eye to the seemingly ever-present chaos and internal strife at the Martís. For example, in 1999, the President’s Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting made waves by sending a letter to President Clinton demanding the ouster of OCB director Herminio San Roman, a politically well-connected Miami lawyer, citing significant deterioration of programming and questionable management practices during his reign. However, the Clinton Administration was determined to go to great lengths to protect its appointee, regardless of the havoc he was causing in the Martí operations. Apparently without the weight of Mas Canosa behind the Advisory Board, its voice was all but muzzled.
Verbalized apprehension over the long reach of exile influence proved not unfounded. In January 2003, the OIG found that the OCB lacked adequate quality programming controls, and that the station’s hiring practices were “inappropriate and inadequate,” noting “violations of government procurement requirements and actions that created the appearance of favoritism.” Furthermore, it claimed the OCB lacked key management personnel and adequate internal controls. Specifically, it asserted that the station lacked on-air quality control, after the committee to review new programming had been disbanded in 2001 when it rejected two shows proposed by the director.
This scathing report, which lodged serious charges of cronyism and possible federal violations at the Martís, eventually led to the resignation of its highly controversial then-director, Salvador Lew, although his official reasons for leaving were “health concerns.” Lew’s tumultuous tenure had created utter chaos and internal strife within the Martí operations, as he filled its ranks with close personal associates, including some of Miami’s most ultra radical right-wing figures, among them such tawdry characters as Amardo Pérez Roura, a follower of Batista and a member of the Alpha 66 and the Cuban Unity faction, as well as Rolando Espinosa, former partner of brigand businessman Demetrio Pérez Jr.
Where Martí Errs
After the fall of the Lew fiefdom, his replacement, Bush-appointed former lobbyist and attorney Pedro Roig, like many incoming Martí directors in the past, promised to clean up the stations’ malpractices. However, it is doubtful that Roig, also a Bay of Pigs veteran, who had close ties to the late Mas Canosa, as well as controversial former OCB director, Herminio San Román, will offer much in the way of enlightened change. Roig has received the acclaim of two of Congress’s most vociferous Martí supporters and anti-Castro militants, Southern Florida Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (a major recipient of Miami contributions) and Lincoln Díaz-Balart (son of a former vice minister in the Batista regime). With these credentials, it is doubtful that Roig will have the substance, or even the inclination, to act with integrity and sense of independence in carrying out a thorough house cleaning at the station in order to elevate its embarrassingly low level of performance so it can be considered even quasi-professional.
A Pitiful Performance
Multiple troubles have become highly visible in Radio and TV Martí’s content and programming, and over the years critics have cited a lengthening number of cases where they claim the stations’ broadcasting lacks journalistic integrity, balance, and sense of objectivity. According to a 1998 evaluation by five journalists associated with Florida International University (certainly not a bastion of pro-Castro sentiment), after analyzing over twenty hours of Radio Martí programming, the group found problems of credibility concerning its lack of balance, inadequate sourcing, and a profound lack of professionalism, particularly regarding poor news judgment in story selection and confusing packaging of reportage. In his 2002 testimony before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, the conservative Lexington Institute’s Philip Peters highlighted two notable professional lapses in Radio Martí’s news coverage, and revealed a long history of substandard journalism. He describes how Radio Martí failed on at least two critical occasions to provide timely and accurate coverage: the Elian Gonzalez case and a speech made by President Jimmy Carter in Cuba. In the Elian Gonzalez case, the station waited several hours to report that U.S. officials had returned the boy to Cuba, a development that was highly unpopular among a faction of Miami’s Cuban American community. The BBG also found the station’s coverage of the case to be “Miami-focused,” with a lack of coverage of the Administration’s position.
In his 2002 speech, which was carried by the Cuban state media, a visiting President Carter advocated a respect of human rights, and talked to the Cuban people about the Varela project, which was sponsored by a small group of Cuban human rights activists; but Carter also voiced criticism of current U.S. policy towards the island. Radio Martí aired the speech the next day, but only after it had been played over the Voice of America’s Spanish service. Peters concluded that “the failure to provide timely coverage of these events shows that the newsroom management of Radio Martí operates not according to standard news judgment, but according to some other criteria.”
Is anybody out there?
There is little more than flimsy anecdotal evidence about the true size of the Martís’ listeners’ grid on the island, with this estimation generally relying on the testimonies of new Cuban refugee arrivals and phone surveys, which project that the broadcasts are reaching a Cuban audience but in questionable numbers. Both sides acknowledge that there are colossal obstacles in accurately assessing the audience tuning into Martí broadcasts. Even Representative Christopher Smith (R-NJ), a staunch supporter of the operation, admits that “doing phone surveys are precarious at best.” Nonetheless, Oregon’s Democratic Senator Ron Wyden suggests that the information actually reaching the island from television broadcasts was as sparse as “the only snow they get in Cuba.” He dismissively observes, “What we have been feeding the Cuban people is static and snow… [and] this is just about the most expensive snow we have seen on the planet.” The reports that are available reflect very unimpressive numbers. Representative Flake, citing a BBG survey, estimates “Radio Martí’s regular weekly audience to be approximately 1.7 percent of Cuban listenership. TV Martí is 0.3%. It is virtually gone. There is nothing there.”
A Matter of Programming
While part of this inability to reach a local audience is due to Cuban jamming efforts, perhaps more chilling factors may loom. Does TV, and even Radio Martí, provide the type of programming that the Cuban people are interested in watching or find in the least bit credible? Polls show that after Radio Martí’s late 1990s switch from a news format to one mixed with entertainment, its listenership decreased dramatically, and though the station has since returned to its original all news format, it has failed to regain its past audience base. However, Cubans watching TV Martí can now tune into political satires, such as “The Boss’s Office,” a program that spoofs Fidel Castro. Nonetheless, given the station’s widespread reputation among Cubans as being laden with political bias and poor quality programming, it is uncertain whether many in the Cuban audience are at all interested in what scant fare the station has to offer. Furthermore, on the small island where there are few secrets, the Castro government has its eyes and ears everywhere. As a result, the liability of tuning into TV Martí may be so great that people with an interest in its programming would, regrettably enough, simply be too frightened to watch.
Despite these longstanding questions about the project’s viability, Congress, at the impetus of heavy pressure from Miami, has moved forward with several new initiatives. First and foremost, a near obsessive desire to penetrate Cuban jamming has led the station’s U.S. backers to seek new technological initiatives that they believe can overcome the constant obstructions being thrown up by the regime. Beginning in 2003, borrowed C-130 airborne platforms were first used to broadcast Radio and TV Martí, and the State Department announced that on August 21, 2004 the broadcasts, via airborne platform, had been successfully utilized for as long as several hours. These aircraft, on loan from the Pennsylvania National Guard, are highly specialized and otherwise have been used to relay military information and carry out psychological operations, as well as for civil affairs programming. In May 2004, the heavily biased Miami-based Commission for Assistance for a Free Cuba requested funding to purchase a similar aircraft for “full-time transmission” of Radio and TV Martí into Cuba. The Bush Administration enthusiastically backed this proposal, asking Congress to direct up to $18 million for this new initiative. Congress eventually passed the FY2006 Budget, which, in addition to the media operation’s annual budget, granted one-time funding of an additional $10 million to acquire and outfit an aircraft dedicated to airborne radio and television broadcasts.
Standing up to Miami
Some U.S. critics with a communications background oppose Radio and TV Martí as a matter of principle, agreeing with the Cuban government’s annual complaints to the International Telecommunication Union, that even aiming its signal at Cuba from U.S. airspace violates the international regulations regarding broadcasting, to which both the U.S. and Cuba are signatories. Havana argues that this is not how to use the airwaves, and that such behavior relegates international broadcasting to the law of the jungle and nothing short of piracy. Nevertheless, in Congress, there are a few Congressional members who possess the courage or conviction to challenge the project, however wrongful and wasteful Washington’s funding of Martí may be.
The two most common criticisms leveled against Radio and TV Martí in Congressional debates pertain to the questionable content of the broadcasts, and the nagging skepticism over whether anyone receives them at all. These concerns have caused some to question if the entire Martí operation is worthy of the massive amounts of U.S. taxpayer dollars that they consume, and whether it is important enough to be looked upon as a “must” activity during a time of record budgetary shortages. This relatively small group argues that funding Martí represents a giant swindle of public funds to finance – with taxpayer money – the private ideological predilections of what amounts to be little more than a group of Miami zealots.
Several members of Congress have offered a wide variety of direct responses to these vexatious aspects of the Martí project. Senator Wyden and Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) proposed cutting funding for TV Martí, and lifting the travel ban, as a more viable way to reach the Cuban people, with Senator Dorgan imploring Congress to “have the courage to shut down a program that is a total waste of the American taxpayers’ money.” Arizona Rep. Flake proposed that Congress redirect the additional $10 million dollars intended for the new aircraft to traditional programs that are administered by the State Department, such as Fulbright and Gilman scholarships.
Other critics point to logistical chasms in the aircraft proposal. The aircraft will only be permitted to fly in U.S. airspace to avoid violating international treaties that stipulate how closely it can approach Cuba without risking violating the island’s airspace. Furthermore, critics argue that Cuban jamming will continue to thwart even the new efforts at the Martís. Pennsylvania State Professor John Nichols argued in a Knight Ridder article, “Just because the plane’s moving around doesn’t change the fact that (the signal) is broadcast on a frequency…The Cubans figure out what frequency it’s on; they jam it.” Congressional leaders already under Miami’s spell are deaf to such reservations; while Florida’s pugnacious congressional delegation merely ignores them.
The Almighty Dollar
Despite several attempts over the past decade to curb, modify, or eliminate funding for the Martí operations, a doughty scene of Congressional critics have been largely unsuccessful in their efforts to halt the drain of public funds flowing to the admittedly mooncalf project, which is supported by its staunch defenders in both Houses of Congress. Many of the latter directly benefit financially from the flow of Miami’s political campaign funding. Not surprisingly, no current U.S. legislator dependant on Miami’s campaign funding has voted against the Martí operation, a move which would undoubtedly incite outrage among some of their most vocal constituents.
Dealing from Principle – Ex-Representative Skaggs
However, in 1993, former Representative David Skaggs (D-CO), in an attempt to trim unnecessary budgetary spending targeted for the Martís, was able to convince his House brethren to block funding for the two operations—a measure which did not meet the same success in the Senate, where it was inevitably defeated. Skaggs paid a high price for his bold move, and came under withering fire from anti-Havana hardliners. Martí’s congressional supporters, led by none other than treasury plunderer Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart responded with a stark warning that revenge would be exacted on those who might threaten the continuation of the Martí operation, making an example of Skaggs by attempting to slash federal funding for projects in his home district. However, Skaggs refused to give up the fight, and he continued his campaign against the project, in particular its television component, until he retired in 1998. Skaggs admitted, “You know that if you kick the Cuba issue, you’re going to have a bad day.” As a result of his personal experience, the Miami New Times reported in a November 12, 1998 article that Skaggs bitterly expressed outrage at the “corruption of United States policy that is inherent in our Cuba policy,” explaining, “by corruption I mean the untoward influence of a relatively small segment of the population in Florida and the money that small segment of the population brings to bear, and how it distorts the policy choices this government makes.”
Not only does the overwhelming influence of the Miami anti-Castro power brokers impede any attempt to reduce funding for the programs, but their political firepower also has diluted efforts which should have been made to reform these broadcasting agencies. According to Lawrence Grossman, former president of NBC News, he, along with several other journalists and academics, were asked by former CBS News president David Burke, who in the mid-1990s had the job of overseeing Radio and TV Martí, to report on the project’s accuracy, professionalism and sense of fairness. The group then proceeded to pose the theoretical question, what would happen “if [they] concluded that the influential chairman of the President’s Advisory Broadcasting Board for Cuban Broadcasting, Jorge Mas Canosa, should resign?” The response they received was “no way”—there was an upcoming election and Congressional candidates heavily dependent on the Cuban-exile vote would be unwilling to risk provoking the hostility of such a powerful group. As a result, Grossman and his colleagues declined the offer, and the potentially revealing document was never executed. Grossman concluded, “[TV Martí] is a folly imposed on us by politically powerful Cuban exile groups that neither party wants to offend.”
Practical Solution or Misguided Symbolic Gesture?
Even Radio and TV Martí’s most stalwart supporters—who defend both the broadcast’s content and viability— do not question that TV Martí boasts, at best, a notably small, if not practically miniscule, audience. Defenders of the operations peg the future success of TV Martí on the new technological initiatives to overcome jamming. In response to the various previous attempts to cut funding for TV Martí as a matter of sheer waste, rather than providing concrete evidence demonstrating the value and success of the endeavor in order to defeat such initiatives, most of Martí’s supporters call upon symbolic rhetorical arguments to justify the endeavor, claiming that abandoning the media operations would be tantamount to forsaking the Cuban people. Supporting arguments tend to mimic Florida Senator Mel Martínez’s forlorn statement that “While imperfect and still a work in progress, for us to turn our backs on those people who depend today on the little information they can get from Radio and TV Martí, would be a step away from a long and proud tradition of this country to stand by people who are oppressed.” While appeals such as these seek to invoke a sense of sympathy, they do little in the way of proving the broadcasts’ intrinsic value. Instead, such language is simply “non-speak” to provide cover for a total boondoggle whose dreary performance record brings disgrace upon this country and those who have tirelessly backed the project.
Since its beginning, advocates of Radio and TV Martí have historically proselytized for the importance of the station as a watchdog during Cuba’s seemingly endless “transition to democracy.” Over twenty years and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars later, the wait continues for Radio and TV Martí’s crowning moment in the Miami’s envisioned post-Castro transition to a democratic society. While it remains to be seen if this event will ever come to fruition in the manner envisaged by Miami’s capos, the defenders of this vision are seemingly more concerned about the symbolism of the broadcasting operations and the lure of Miami campaign contributions, than the project’s dubious effectiveness in carrying out its assigned mission.
To Spend or not to Spend
In his 2005 State of the Union Address, President Bush proclaimed “tax payers dollars must be spent wisely or not at all.” Given that the U.S. is currently facing a serious budgetary and debt crisis, one must question why this administration and congress is willing to spend an additional $10 million dollars above and beyond the hundreds of millions already spent on anti-Havana initiatives including Radio and TV Martí. As the project’s 20 years of operations has been plagued by its notorious ineffectuality, which in large part is due to an inability to get its already tendentious message through to the Cuban people, it is highly undeserving of new funding. Nonetheless, perhaps more to the satisfaction of its Miami sponsors than the people of Cuba, the much anticipated aircraft will be beaming Radio and TV Martí’s signals to at least a handful islanders in the very near future.