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National Perspective | MEDIA

Pro-Democracy Broadcasts to Cuba Muddled at the Source

January 12, 1998|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — When Herminio San Roman, a politically connected Miami lawyer, was named director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting nine months ago, his primary mission was to quell the enduring turmoil at Radio and TV Marti.

For years, the U.S. government's efforts to beam pro-democracy programming to the Communist island just 90 miles south of Key West has been so riddled by staff dissension and low morale that some in Congress have wanted to pull the plug on the stations. In fact, this year's operating budget was slashed by $3 million, down to $22 million.

Although some of the internal static has been cleared up, San Roman admitted that "morale is not as high as it should be." Having inherited what he described as a pervasive "bunker mentality" within the broadcast offices, San Roman said: "You're always going to have people not happy or satisfied with policies, especially when you have a long history of feuding and politicization of a mission."

Modeled on the Voice of America broadcasts to Eastern Europe, the Martis have been controversial from the start. Radio Marti went on the air with 24-hour broadcasts in 1985, and from anecdotal evidence--interviews with defectors, for example--San Roman estimates about 30% of Cuba's 11 million people listen.

TV Marti followed in 1990, but almost no one in Cuba sees any of its 4 1/2 hours of daily programming because the government of Fidel Castro jams it. Technicians are now testing a new, jam-proof transmitter that would be held aloft by a helium-filled balloon anchored 10,000 feet over the Florida Keys.

Even San Roman has provoked controversy. In comments to local reporters, some OCB employees have described his manner as abrupt and dictatorial. A rump group of staffers reportedly met outside the office with members of the Cuban American community to complain of San Roman's leadership in allowing the station to air callers from the island who voiced support for the Castro government.

In an opinion column in El Nuevo Herald, Radio Marti news director Ramon Cotta said station dissidents were being used by those who wanted to sabotage broadcasts to Cuba.

Additional unrest has stemmed from the decision to shift Radio and TV Marti headquarters from Washington to Miami, a move favored by Jorge Mas Canosa, a wealthy anti-Castro exile who lobbied the Ronald Reagan administration to set up the Martis and for years was a major influence on U.S. policy toward Cuba. Until his death in November, Mas Canosa chaired the OCB advisory group and long had been the focus of federal investigations into reports that he exerted undue influence over programming, staff and news coverage at the stations.

San Roman acknowledges that with half of the staff still in Washington while Miami offices are being completed, morale-building is slow going. And he worries about what the loss of Mas Canosa's voice will mean next spring when Congress considers the budget again. "Jorge was a force to be reckoned with," San Roman said.

Meantime, San Roman is revising the Radio Marti menu, adding to commentary, news and novelas (soap operas), as well as "open microphone" shows that take live calls from Cuba. His aim is to increase listeners in the 25- to 54-year-old age group.

Emmy-winning journalist Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera, hired as radio station director, promises to get more aggressive in informing Cubans about civil rights. "We want to help the Cuban people learn how to have differences of opinion in a democratic society," Rodriguez-Tejera said.

In one of his first acts as OCB director, San Roman ordered doors removed from some offices in an effort to improve communication among the staff. Now, he said, "We're starting to get a sense of mission, of teamwork."

"There will always be critics of this mission," San Roman said. "But I think we will keep enough supporters in Congress to provide funding. This is an investment that will pay high dividends when the transition in Cuba begins."

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