Radio Head

By Johannes Werner March 31, 2010

When news broke about the Obama Administration’s appointment of Sarasotan Dick Lobo as head of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which oversees divisions including Voice of America and Radio/TV Marti, I wasn’t sure whether Lobo deserved congratulations or condolences.

Congratulations, of course, are due when the president picks you to run a government agency with a $717 million budget and 3,800 employees.

But many in the reality-based community argue that the agency the 73-year-old career broadcast administrator was picked to run is a prime example of what’s wrong with the way the United States projects its power abroad.

Before starting his brand new job, Lobo must pass what will likely be a painful Senate confirmation process. As of late February, he was not free to talk to reporters, pending his confirmation.

The soft-spoken Tampa native and grandson of Cuban immigrant was actually in charge of Radio/TV Marti during the Clinton administration. Since then, the taxpayer-funded Miami station has become more controversial. Since 1985, it has produced a heavily slanted view of Cuban reality, with a signal that only a handful of people can pick up. The station delivers a mix of all-dissident coverage all the time, sprinkled with bad-news-only items about the Cuban reality, plus news about Cuban exile politics that rarely gives voice to dissenters in the United States.

Responding to Cuban jamming, the Bush Administration in spring 2006 began to beam the signal from a dedicated broadcast aircraft, constantly roaming the skies close to Cuban airspace. (It’s not clear whether the Obama Administration has quietly parked the plane in a hangar, but it’s still in the Marti budget.) Annual cost of $10 million and risk-taking aside, the U.S. airwave assault probably violates international broadcasting agreements because it interferes with frequencies used by Cuba.  

Cuba isn’t the only one trying to bump the Martis off the air—there is strong dissent inside the United States. That’s because, while nobody objects to using taxpayer-funded media to beam a nicer image of the United States of America to the rest of the world, it’s an altogether different story when our government tries to tell other people how to view themselves, using military airplanes to get the story across.

A bipartisan group of Congresspeople who believe that normalization is the best way to foster change in Cuba have picked Radio/TV Marti as the fall guy. After a series of scathing findings by Congressional investigators—ranging from inefficiency to corruption—the station’s budget has begun to shrink; the only reason there still is a relatively lavish $32.5 million this financial year is the pull of a bipartisan group of Cuban-American legislators.

So far, the Obama Administration has barely scratched the status quo, but it has begun to consolidate the operations of the IBB.

Long-time Cuba watcher and former New York Times reporter Ann-Louise Bardach speculates that the consolidation might be the station’s “swan song.” And Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican and strong critic of U.S. embargo policies against Cuba, believes the people who run Radio/TV Marti are beginning to realize they’re “on borrowed time.”

Not surprisingly, a Cuban-American Republican has drawn a line in the sand. “I am looking into this issue to ensure that this is an effort to maximize resources to expand U.S. coverage in the region, and not a back door to reducing U.S. broadcasts to Cuba,” warned Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in an interview with AP.

So Lobo has his work cut out; if he wants to stir up things, he can bet his retirement that Ros-Lehtinen and friends will put him on the hot seat.

It’s also possible Lobo does not want to fundamentally change Radio/TV Marti. After all, his DNA is all over the place.

“Outside In” wishes Lobo the best. And I am looking forward to interesting discussions. Talking about Cuban-Americans, there’s another player with Sarasota connections making headlines recently. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the godfather of anti-Castro politics on Capitol Hill for 18 years (and a New College alum) surprised everyone in February when he announced he would not run for re-election after his current term expires. Diaz-Balart has significantly contributed to perpetuating the U.S. embargo against Cuba, and he has very successfully led the defense against all attacks over the past six or seven years. Now he says he wants to work for change in Cuba as a “private citizen and lawyer.”

So what is he up to? Anyone’s guess; some suggest he’s simply worn out from the defensive game he has had to play since the political tides in Washington began to turn against the embargo. Others believe he wants to make a presidential run in Cuba, his native country, despite how unpopular he is among Cubans.

Still, Lincoln is leaving at a moment of strength, and he should not be counted out.

As Bardach, author of Without Fidel and a chronicler of Cuban exile politics, assured me: “I’m sure that Lincoln will remain in the family business, which is Cuban politics. I predict he will remain a thorn in the side of his former uncle, Fidel Castro, for as long as he survives.”

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