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Warning to Radio, TV Marti: Congress is watching

Democrats aren't likely to abide the anti-Castro operation's big budget, small audience and violations of standards.

December 24, 2006|Andrew Zajac | Chicago Tribune

MIAMI — A $530-million, 20-year federal government venture to broadcast American values in Cuba has yielded a minuscule audience, no measurable impact and strong suggestions of cronyism for a politically potent South Florida constituency.

Funding for Radio and TV Marti has grown to $37 million a year, even though a nine-member advisory board set up to guide the U.S. broadcasting effort has not met in eight years. The White House recently supplied a list of current members of the President's Advisory Board for Cuba, which included a man who has been dead for 11 years.

With Cuban President Fidel Castro critically ill, TV and Radio Marti, as well as overall U.S. policy toward Cuba, are likely to come under increasing scrutiny by a Democratic-controlled Congress and moderate Republicans opposed to the U.S. economic embargo against the island.

"This is a critical juncture in Cuba, and we don't have a credible voice," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a member of a bipartisan congressional study group that advocates ending the four-decade-old embargo. "The fact is, the content [on Radio and TV Marti] is so bad it wouldn't be useful to realize our goals of promoting democracy."

In 2005, the Broadcasting Board of Governors -- which oversees the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, along with Voice of America and the government's other nonmilitary international broadcasters -- reported that fewer than 100,000 people on the island of more than 11 million were listening weekly to the U.S.-run radio station. The monthly audience for TV Marti is estimated to number in the hundreds or less.

Those Cubans who do manage to tune in hear or see programming -- including news shows, documentaries and even a sitcom mocking Castro -- that is sprinkled with vulgarity and omits stories critical of the Bush administration and Miami's Cuban exile community, all in apparent violation of federal broadcast standards.

Radio and TV Marti managers counter that they have substantially improved the quality of programming in recent years. Some even point to the lack of an audience as proof of the stations' success.

"The Martis must represent a grave, grave threat to Fidel Castro," said Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Otherwise, he said, why would the Cuban government place such a premium on jamming its broadcasts?

"They have been rationing electricity in Cuba, and it's still so important to block Marti broadcasts that they will devote this incredible amount of energy," Tomlinson said in a recent interview.

But Flake and other critics say the lack of audience is the fruit of neglect by U.S. officials who are loath to interfere in the operations of Radio and TV Marti for fear of antagonizing Florida's 830,000 Cuban Americans -- about 450,000 of them voters.

The 2000 presidential election illustrated the political importance of the Cuban American population: George W. Bush took 80% of the Cuban vote and won Florida by a mere 537 votes to secure the White House.

Unlike every other U.S.-funded international broadcaster, OCB doesn't have an administrative office in Washington.

Some observers trace an increase in journalistic lapses to Congress' 1996 decision to allow the agency to move to Miami, out of immediate reach of overseers. The move was engineered by the late Jorge Mas Canosa, legendary founder of the Cuban American National Foundation and prime mover behind the establishment of Radio and TV Marti.

Some congressional skeptics warned then that moving the stations' operations could lead to a loss of federal control and allow the Martis to become sources of patronage for the exile community.

The current director of Radio and TV Marti, Miami attorney Pedro Roig, has overseen some unusual employment arrangements, including hiring his wife's nephew as his chief of staff and contracting with a former legal client to write a comedy show mocking Castro. Roig declined to comment on the stations and their operation.

Recent internal reviews of both Marti stations identified violations of basic rules of journalism and government broadcast guidelines, as well as reluctance to air news "that could be perceived as adverse to the current presidential administration, the U.S. government or the exile community."

In addition to well-documented difficulties with fairness, OCB has run afoul of government watchdogs for the way it has handled its budget.

In 2003, the State Department inspector general criticized the office for shoddy contracting practices, including "violations of government procurement requirements and actions that created the appearance of favoritism."

Extensive contracting began under the Clinton administration after Mas' death in 1997 as a way for Democrats to reward friends, according to Christopher Coursen, a member of the Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting from 1991 to 2004.

Some oversight is supposed to come from the nine-member panel, but it hasn't met since 1998, Coursen said.

According to the list provided by the White House, the board currently has seven members, including Charles Tyroler.

Tyroler, an intelligence official in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, died in 1995.

Also on the list is Salvador Lew, who preceded Roig as head of OCB. Lew says he's not on the advisory board and is under the impression that it has been disbanded.

Robert McKinney, who was appointed by President Bush to the board in late 2003, said he had never been contacted about when it might meet. "In my opinion, they don't want this board to operate," said McKinney, a former chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.

White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said she could not explain how Tyroler and Lew came to be included on a list of current members.

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