WASHINGTON — The Cold War may be waning in Europe, but it is thriving closer to home. Later this month, the United States will begin using a communications balloon over the Florida Keys to bombard Cuba with TV Marti, the Caribbean television equivalent of Radio Free Europe.
TV Marti, the only official U.S. television broadcast aimed exclusively at a foreign country, was authorized by Congress for a three-month test at a cost of $7.5 million.
Cuban President Fidel Castro has promised to fire back. The U.S. communications industry fears this could mean serious interference with television and radio broadcasting in the United States.
But Castro similarly threatened retaliation to Radio Marti when it began broadcasting in 1985, and he engineered nothing more than minor interference with Florida radio broadcasting.
Advocates since have hailed Radio Marti, named for Cuban nationalist hero Jose Marti, as a political triumph. Even opponents have conceded that it forced Castro to disclose news he might otherwise have suppressed, such as political defections, Cuban troop casualties in Africa and the arrival in Cuba of the deadly AIDS virus.
TV Marti has the unqualified backing of the Bush Administration. "We believe that TV Marti will not only build on the success of Radio Marti but will enhance America's commitment to the free flow of information," Bruce Gelb, head of the U.S. Information Agency, said at his Senate confirmation hearing.
Ernesto Betancur, director of Radio Marti, is another enthusiast. "Can you imagine the Cuban people seeing the Berlin Wall coming down and the demonstrations in Czechoslovakia?" said Betancur, a one-time close adviser to Castro.
Betancur's organization has been pumping out voluminous accounts of developments in Eastern Europe, but officials of the Voice of America, the arm of USIA that runs TV Marti, believe that photographs would carry greater impact. Reporting of the historic events by the Cuban media has been minimal, reflecting Castro's declared hostility to Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's reform policies.
Although Radio Marti has thus far largely escaped threatened Cuban vengeance, some Cuban experts say that the new project will be different.
Jose Luis Llovio-Menendez, the highest-ranking Cuban civil official to defect when he bolted from a plane in Montreal in 1981, predicted that Castro will retaliate the day TV Marti's signal reaches Cuban screens.
"Fidel needed the immigration agreement (with the United States) in 1985, so he held off," said Llovio-Menendez, now a Council of Foreign Affairs scholar in New York. "If he lets this pass, he will really lose face."
Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R. I.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pointed out that television signals are easier to jam than radio signals.
"I continue to have reservations about TV Marti," Pell said in a statement. "I await the results of the planned feasibility tests and a definitive interpretation of the project's compliance with international law."
A foreign relations committee staff member, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said that the beaming of television signals outside the originating country's territory violates international conventions, which make an exception only for short-wave signals--a standard that Radio Marti also violates. He said that Pell requested the State Department to provide legal justification for the project, but no report has been delivered.
The National Assn. of Broadcasters has expressed legal concerns and technical questions.
"The government tried using a balloon for TV monitoring of the Mexican border and it was destroyed by a windstorm," NAB vice president Steve Jacobs said.
But Jacobs' primary objection, he said, would be to any "spillage" of the signal that would directly interfere with commercial television broadcasters in Florida. He said that a Tampa station using Channel 13, the channel planned for TV Marti, would be in jeopardy.
Jacobs said that NAB members throughout the country could be affected if Cuba were to begin jamming, and the mechanism for compensation of damages is unclear. The fear of a radio war is real, he said.
But Robert Coonrod, the deputy director of the Voice of America who is directly responsible for getting TV Marti started, dismissed the concerns.
"The experience we have to go on is Radio Marti," Coonrod said. "All kinds of threats were made and not much happened. Radio Marti is now an established institution."
Coonrod also rebutted objections of critics that the system will be subject to the vagaries of wind and weather. "There's an automatic cutoff of the signal if the transmitter gets more than a few degrees off its direction," he said.