Head of Radio Marti may be ousted

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- In a move that could lessen hostility between the United States and Cuba, the Clinton administration is considering a move to oust a powerful Cuban-American exile from atop the board that oversees U.S. broadcasts to the island.

The White House is expected to decide this fall whether to loosen the grip of Jorge Mas Canosa over Radio Marti and Television Marti by restructuring the board and naming new members, a senior administration official said.

Mr. Mas, who heads the Miami-based Cuban-American National Foundation, an influential lobbying organization, was a driving force behind the creation of both Radio Marti and TV Marti, and has been a key figure in their turbulent operations ever since. Among those being considered for the board of the broadcast service, the administration official said, is former Rep. Dante Fascell of Miami, a Democrat who was the longtime chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. If the reorganization takes place, Mr. Fascell is expected to replace Mr. Mas as chairman.

"A process has started to move to find a slate to recommend to the president," the official said.

While not shifting basic U.S. policy toward Cuba, the shake-up would almost certainly reduce the prominence the broadcast service gives to views promoted by Mr. Mas, one of Cuban leader Fidel Castro's fiercest opponents in the United States and a figure said to view himself as Mr. Castro's most suitable successor.

Appointed chairman of the advisory panel by President Ronald Reagan and never replaced, Mr. Mas has used his position to exert control over Radio and TV Marti personnel and programming, according to agency officials and current and former staff members.

Recently, he has been a focus of an investigation by the United States Information Agency's inspector general, an inquiry triggered by allegations of reprisals by Radio Marti managers against station analysts who complained that his influence had led to distorted news coverage.

By replacing him as board chairman, President Clinton would defy Mr. Mas' many congressional allies, especially members who represent Cuban-American strongholds in Florida and New Jersey. Mr. Fascell nurtured close ties to Cuban-Americans while in Congress but no longer depends on that community for political support.

Mr. Mas' congressional supporters showed their influence earlier this month in beating back efforts by liberal Democrats in the House to abolish the Mas-led advisory board and to cut off funds for TV Marti,which has been jammed by the Castro regime since the broadcasts began in 1990.

Mr. Clinton's ties with conservative Cuban-Americans have steadily worsened since spring, when, without consulting Mr. Mas, the administration reversed three decades of U.S. policy and refused automatic asylum to Cuban refugees.

Other changes now contemplated by administration officials include exchanges of news bureaus and easing restrictions on money sent by Cuban-Americans to families on the island. Mr. Clinton remains opposed to lifting the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba.

Joseph D. Duffey, chairman of the USIA, the Marti stations' parent organization, declined to comment on the proposed changes except to say, "We have a decision to make" about a new advisory panel. "A number of people have served for a considerable period of time."

But in an interview Friday, Mr. Duffey left no doubt that he expected the influence of conservative exiles to diminish in administration policy-making and in the coverage offered by Radio and TV Marti. The exiles' views and the larger national interest are "not always the same," he said.

Noting the political and generational divisions within the Cuban-American community itself, Mr. Duffey said, "Intensive coverage of the Cuban-American community today would be a coverage of debate and controversy over the future of our relations with Cuba."

Mr. Mas, he said, "is one voice, and probably not as dominant a voice as he has been in the past. I think he himself would recognize that."

Mr. Mas could not be reached for comment last week. But in a recent interview with a Spanish-language television station and in a column published in the Miami Herald, he condemned the expected changes in the stations.

"The Clinton administration wants to turn Radio Marti into an instrument for its policy of negotiation with the Castro regime," he told Univision in a report broadcast July 27.

In his column in the Herald on Aug. 1, he wrote: "In a highly volatile atmosphere of political changes in Washington relating to U.S. policy toward Cuba, it has become essential for the promoters of that change -- left-wing Clinton administration policy-makers -- to take over Radio and TV Marti, the main source of free and objective news and information for the Cuban people."

Created by Congress in 1983 to give Cubans an alternative to the Castro regime's controlled and fiercely anti-American media, Radio Marti was a hybrid among U.S. international broadcast services.

Although similar in its purpose to Radio Free Europe, which was intended to help destabilize the old Soviet bloc, Radio Marti was nevertheless supposed to avoid propaganda and to adhere to the same standards of objectivity that guide the Voice of America, the government-owned service that broadcasts news in many languages throughout the world.

Officials reasoned at the time that only objective broadcasts would be credible with the Cuban people, who tend to be inured to propaganda.

Mr. Mas pledged himself to this principle when he was named to the advisory board. At his 1984 Senate confirmation hearing, he said: "We would defeat the purpose for which Radio Marti was created if we are going to make Radio Marti a tool of just the Cuban-American community . . . [or] the anti-Castro sentiments of that community."

In its early years, said Ernesto Betancourt, the station's first director, Mr. Mas largely avoided interference. But after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he began demanding increased coverage for the foundation and himself, Mr. Betancourt said.

"All of a sudden, he was anxious that Cuba was going to follow [the Soviet collapse] and people were not going to know what a great guy he was," Mr. Betancourt said in an interview.

Mr. Mas, a veteran of the aborted U.S.-backed attempt by Cuban exiles in 1961 to overthrow Mr. Castro -- the Bay of Pigs invasion -- is widely believed to want to be Mr. Castro's successor.

Present and former station staffers say that last year, Mr. Mas prevailed on Radio Marti to send a reporter from Ecuador to Colombia to report on his meeting with then-President Cesar Gaviria of Colombia.

In 1992, according to staff members, he pressed the station to keep a reporter on its payroll because of the reporter's access to Cuban dissidents favored by Mr. Mas.

Without mentioning Mr. Mas' name, studies by both the General Accounting Office and an outside panel have called for Radio and TV Marti to give less attention to the views of the Cuban exile community.

J. Richard Planas, a Radio Marti research analyst, told the review panel last year that Radio Marti had been politicized. He said that Mr. Mas himself was one of the topics on which the broadcast service failed to offer "objective and balanced coverage."

The USIA's inspector general has been reviewing allegations that station managers targeted Mr. Planas and other analysts for reassignment because of their criticism of Mr. Mas' influence.

The investigation also concerns allegations of misuse of government money, improper personnel practices, and irregularities and misleading reports in broadcasts, USIA officials say.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
70°