RECENT Cuban exiles have testified to the strong impact on the island of five-year-old Radio Marti, the official United States broadcasts to communist Cuba. So television seemed like a ``natural escalation,'' says TV Marti director Antonio Navarro.
That escalation has quickly become a full-scale ``electronic war,'' in President Fidel Castro's phrase. After a three-month, $7.5-million test run, which ends today, reports are mixed about which side won.
President Bush is required to report to Congress today on how whether TV Marti has succeeded in delivering a clear, viewable signal to the Havana area.
His report becomes the basis for continuing TV Marti for the rest of the fiscal year, for another $16 million.
At best, watching TV Marti in Cuba is not easy. In the most skeptical views, it is impossible. This leads some analyst to question the value of the effort.
In addition, broadcasters in the United States are concerned that if TV Marti moves beyond its test period, the Cubans will retaliate by disrupting US channels as far away as Minneapolis.
The Cubans have worked vigorously to jam TV Marti's signal.
TV Marti commissioned a study polling tourists from Cuba at Miami International Airport last month and found 81 percent of the 543 people surveyed had tried to tune in the signal and 28 percent had succeeded for five minutes or longer. Of those who had succeeded, 57 percent could remember specific programs.
Other casual indicators show a starker picture. Wayne Smith of Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies and a former chief of the US Interests Section in Havana, visited Cuba in April and tried to tune in the signal in Havana, as well as in various locations in Matanzas province. He failed.
After talking to a number of friends in Cuba, he says: ``It is absolutely not seen.''
Ernesto Betancourt, who was director of Radio Marti until March, says: ``All the information I get is that it is not successful.''
Graciela Cruz-Taura, a University of Miami historian and Cuban exile, has a friend in Matanzas Province who has seen a clear signal, another further from Havana who can't get it.
A State Department official, acknowledging little ability to measure Cuban reception, says that TV Marti seems to get through in pockets, varying day by day, but that ``the jamming is fairly effective.''
From Cuba's standpoint, the issue is one of sovereignty. ``We don't have anything against American TV,'' says Jorge Gomez Barata, director of the effort to jam TV Marti. ``Many times we have said we would like to officially normalize exchange of transmissions between Cuba and the United States. Why can't we do this? Because the American government forbids it.''
TV Marti has been broadcasting from 3:45 a.m. to 6:45 a.m. so as not to violate international agreements by interfering with existing Cuban programming.
The signal is beamed from a balloon transmitter hoisted 10,000 feet above Cudjoe Key in the lower Florida Keys. Weather renders the broadcasts problematic, especially as summer winds whip up.
Mr. Navarro says TV Marti has been off the air 30 percent of its scheduled hours. Weather grounded the balloon 26 percent of the time. Technical problems arose the other 4 percent.
TV Marti intersperses news with sitcoms like Cheers and Kate and Allie and features on Hispanic contributions to the US.
The news is contracted out to a private firm, Techniarts, and must meet Voice of America standards for objectivity. One Miami-based reporter was fired for too much anti-Cuban government editorializing.
Mr. Navarro says he is always caught between ``fire-eating [Cuban-American] hard-liners who would like me to destabilize Castro and sensationalize and call him names'' and ``the weak-kneed fellows who would like us to send nothing but baseball and soap operas.''
``What do we gain from this?'' asks Wayne Smith. The TV Marti signal ``isn't being received, and it's not going to be received, and now Radio Marti is getting interfered with too.''
Cubans have an appetite for American programs, says Dr. Cruz-Taura, sometimes taking naps just so they can watch old American movies on late-night Cuban TV.
``The question should be, How much more can it do'' than Radio Marti already does?'' she says.
Navarro answers: ``TV is far more effective and credible. If I tell you on the radio that a young man near Tiananmen Square is confronting a tank, you can believe me or not. ... To see them is an entirely different matter.''