Radio Marti

RADIO MARTI, the Voice of America's (VOA) special broadcasting service to Cuba, marks two years on the air next week, and that is cause for celebration. Born in confusion and controversy, the service was buffeted by conservatives - many Cuban exiles among them - who wanted it to take a hard-line propaganda approach against Cuba, and by liberals who saw it as a Ronald Reagan provocation against Fidel Castro. Those totally opposed to its creation lost the day. The radio came into being but was placed by a wary Congress under the umbrella of the VOA. The thinking was that this would prevent the radio from becoming a blatantly anti-Castro propaganda machine and would oblige it to conform to the journalistic standards of VOA.

Few would have given strong odds on its survival. Congressional critics have snipped away at Radio Marti's budget. This year the radio service seeks $12,000,000 for its operations. Suggestions that its budget be cut to $10,000,000 would cause its broadcasts to Cuba to be cut from some 17 to 12 hours daily.

But despite all the vicissitudes, Radio Marti is still plugging away from its transmitter in Marathon, Florida, with a mix of world news, news about Cuba, music, and entertainment that, according to Radio Marti research, makes it one of the most popular radio stations heard in Cuba.

Radio Marti has had much success with long-running Spanish-language soap operas. Another popular program is ``Family Bridge,'' which broadcasts messages to relatives in Cuba from Cuban exiles in the United States. Because mail and phone communication between the US and Cuba is uncertain, Cubans in the US call an 800 number at Radio Marti to tape messages about births, and deaths, and marriages, and other family news. The tapes are then broadcast to Cuba on a much-listened-to program.

Radio Marti's director, Cuban-born Ernesto Betancourt, knows his audience. After the Cuban revolution he served as Castro's spokesman in Washington. But he became disenchanted with Castro's Soviet connections. Now he seeks to tell the truth about Cuba and the world to Cubans whose own government-controlled media shield them from the facts.

Does Radio Marti broadcast any scoops? Says one Radio Marti executive: ``That's not hard to do, given the controls over the Cuban press.''

Thus Radio Marti told Cubans for the first time about the incidence of AIDS among Cuban troops serving in Angola, Ethiopia, and other foreign lands. The Cuban press has been obliged to follow up cautiously, publishing stories alerting Cubans to the problem of AIDS among returning soldiers.

Radio Marti pinpoints deficiencies in Cuba's Marxist economy, but even Castro himself has been doing this recently. However, while some other communist countries have been experimenting with some capitalist-style incentives, Castro has been going in the opposite direction, demanding more austere adherence to socialism. Radio Marti's birth and survival have proved irritating to Castro. Relations between Cuba and the US are currently at a low point. The US chief of mission in Havana, Curtis W. Kamman, has been withdrawn to Washington and Cuban officials say there is no prospect of an improvement in relations until after the Reagan administration.

The fact is that relations were not good before Radio Marti went on the air. If Castro would like to muzzle Radio Marti, that may be a very good reason for ensuring that it celebrates more anniversaries in the years to come. Or at least until Cubans are told the truth by their own press and radio.

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