Friday, August 11, 2006

MIAMI (AP) — Longtime critics are questioning Radio Marti’s relevance, credibility and reach as the taxpayer-funded radio and TV station run mostly by Cuban exiles expands its broadcasts in the wake of President Fidel Castro’s transfer of power.

Congress has approved roughly $500 million in funding since Radio Marti opened 21 years ago, and TV Marti five years later, in an effort to promote the free flow of ideas within Cuba. In 2006, it approved $10 million to beam TV Marti to the island in addition to the stations’ annual budget of $27 million.

But many say it is a waste of tax dollars because the Cuban government jams much of the TV signal.

“They were told 16 years ago that to transmit a TV signal that far, it would be child’s play to block it out at the other end. It was child’s play, and it’s been blocked out,” said Wayne Smith, head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba from 1979 to 1985.

Because of the exiles’ involvement, Mr. Smith said, those on the communist island think the station, named for Cuban poet Jose Marti, has an anti-Castro bias.

A 1999 report by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General found that the radio station failed to meet Voice of America broadcasting standards and lacked external oversight.

“It became just another exile radio station, and people in Cuba recognize that when they hear it,” Mr. Smith said.

But Pedro Roig, who took over the U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting in 2003, which produces Radio Marti, said in recent years that it has revamped broadcasts to focus more on news and ensure programs are more balanced.

“You’ve got to believe in the mission,” Mr. Roig said. “The point is to show debate — that democracy is people expressing their ideas without reprisal.”

On Saturday, TV Marti expanded its four-hour-a-night transmission to six days a week, using a new Lockheed Martin G1 aircraft to beat the jamming. The programming adds to weekly broadcasts transmitted since 2004 from an Air Force C-130 plane.

The new plane was unveiled days after an ailing Mr. Castro announced he was temporarily transferring power to his brother Raul.

Although anti-Castro messages remain the main dish for the stations, Mr. Roig said diverse viewpoints are encouraged.

“We have people who discuss the pros and cons of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, abortion, stem cells, so that they know there’s not one dogma,” he said.

The radio station transmits a mix of news from Cuba, the United States and around the world. This week the station also has been airing excerpts from a recently released presidential commission report on Cuba, and urging Cubans not to take to the sea in rafts.

The broadcasts can be significant as long as they encourage change without sounding as if they encourage “meddling in Cuban affairs,” said Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuban Study Group, a nonpartisan organization of business and community leaders.

“To the extent those messages are transmitted, it’s a great thing,” he said.

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