WASHINGTON - In a new demonstration of political clout by Miami's anti-Castro Cuban exile community, Congress is preparing to shut down the Washington headquarters of Radio Marti and beam future U.S. government radio broadcasts to Cuba from South Florida.
The move is expected to clear Congress soon in an appropriations bill or as part of a continuing resolution.
Critics warn that the move would increase what they claim is the excessive influence over Radio Marti broadcasts wielded by Jorge Mas Canosa, the fierce opponent of President Fidel Castro who heads the Miami-based Cuban-American National Foundation, a lobbying group.
"If the listeners detect that Radio Marti, instead of being a forum of information, has become the instrument of a personality, that will undermine its effectiveness," said Damian Fernandez, who teaches international relations at Florida International University in Miami.
But despite objections raised to the move by Joseph Duffey, who is in overall charge of government broadcasting as head of the United States Information Agency, President Clinton has no plans to use his veto power to stop it, officials say.
Mr. Mas Canosa, a wealthy Bay of Pigs veteran, played a key role in persuading the U.S. government to create the station during the administration of Ronald Reagan, and has been involved in its turbulent history ever since as head of an advisory panel.
That position, some station employees say, has provided him a platform for meddling and for reprisals against employees who refuse to toe his line.
Armed with critical early findings from an internal probe last year, some Clinton administration officials maneuvered to remove Mr. Mas Canosa as chairman of the Marti stations' advisory board.
Six months later, however, the plan lies dormant. When Mr. Duffey paid a courtesy call on Mr. Mas Canosa last month, the subject wasn't even raised, according to a Duffey aide.
In fact, Mr. Mas Canosa and other conservative Cuban exiles have gained new influence over White House policy toward Cuba as a result of the Feb. 24 downing by Havana of two civilian planes piloted by Brothers to the Rescue, a Cuban-American group set up to aid Cuban rafters in the Florida Straits.
"The right-wing Cuban community has more influence. It's rejuvenated and more vociferous," said an administration official who keeps close track of Cuban affairs.
In a clear indication of that, Mr. Mas Canosa was on hand at the White House yesterday as Mr. Clinton signed a law toughening the economic embargo against the Castro regime, legislation that the president had several months ago threatened to veto. Mr. Mas Canosa called the signing "a historic occasion for the Cuban people."
The new law, sponsored by North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Republican Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, would allow Cuban-Americans to sue in U.S. courts to regain property confiscated by the Castro regime and prevent anyone who traffics in confiscated property from entering the United States.
"As I sign this bill into law, I do so in the name of the four men who were killed when their planes were shot down on Feb. 24," Mr. Clinton said.
One recent poll showed Mr. Clinton running about even with the GOP front-runner, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, in the race for Florida's 25 electoral votes. For decades, the Cuban-American community has been overwhelmingly Republican. Although Mr. Clinton gained points among the exiles for his tough reaction to the downing of the planes, many Miamians remain bitter over his decision in 1994 to deny asylum to Cuban boat people rescued on the high seas.
When the idea of Radio Marti was first proposed, Cuban exiles wanted to locate it in Miami, according to Ernesto Betancourt, the station's first director. Congress refused, however.
"They didn't want an exiles' radio station financed by the U.S. government," recalled Mr. Betancourt. Instead, the station's policies were modeled after the Voice of America, which broadcasts worldwide.
Mr. Betancourt said the legislative history makes clear that "Congress expected it to be located in New York or Washington, so it would not be dominated by the exile politics of Miami."
Supporters of moving the station cite a government study showing that it would save up to $5 million a year.
Mr. Mas Canosa, in an opinion article published in Miami's Nuevo Herald in December, said the station's efficiency would be greatly improved "by having better access to the highly qualified personnel available in Miami and not in Washington."
An aide to Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the Florida Republican who supports the move, notes that much of the information broadcast by the station is drawn either from telephone interviews with Cubans or from experts based in Miami.
It also "makes operational sense to have the broadcast capability closer to the target," said the aide, Stephen Vermillion.
Some station employees question the cost savings, noting that Congress is setting aside $7 million for the move.
They say part of the savings would come from sacking the station's analysts, who have been among the chief internal critics of management's ties to Mr. Mas Canosa.
Both Mr. Duffey, the USIA director, and David Burke, a former CBS News president who heads the Broadcasting Board of Governors, have written to Congress to protest the move.
Pub Date: 3/13/96