“The contract now is a ‘non-fly’ ” contract, said Steve Christopher of Phoenix Air Group, standing next to the plane. “That’s what the customer wants.”
The airplane is called “Aero Martí,” and it is stuck in a kind of federal limbo. After two years of haphazard spending cuts in Washington, it has too little funding to function but too much to die.
The plane was outfitted to fly over the ocean and broadcast an American-run TV station into Cuba. The effort was part of the long-running U.S. campaign to combat communism in Cuba by providing information to the Cuban people uncensored by their government.
But Cuban officials jammed the signal almost immediately, and surveys showed that less than 1 percent of Cubans watched. Still, when Congress started making budget cuts, lawmakers refused to kill the plane.
But then they allowed across-the-board “sequestration” cuts. And there was no more money for the fuel and pilots. So the plane sits in storage at taxpayer expense — a monument to the limits of American austerity. In this case, a push to eliminate long-troubled programs collided with old Washington forces: government inertia, intense lobbying and congressional pride.
The result was a stalemate. And a plane left with just enough money to do nothing.
“It’s hard to state how ridiculous it is” that the plane is still costing taxpayers money, said Philip Peters, an official in two Republican administrations and now the president of the Alexandria-based Cuba Research Center.
Peters said the plane’s broadcasts had “no audience. They’ve been effectively jammed, ever since their inception. And rather than spend the money on something that benefits the public . . . it’s turned into a test of manhood on Capitol Hill.”
This plane is a last remnant of a long, weird experiment in television broadcasting across the Straits of Florida. The plan was to broadcast uncensored news and commentary on a station named for Cuban patriot José Martí.
The hope was that something boundless — American disdain for the communist regime of Fidel and Raúl Castro — could overcome something fixed. Which was the laws of physics.
Much of Cuba was simply too far over the horizon to get a strong-enough TV signal from aircraft flying in U.S. airspace. Still, the effort moved ahead.
“I am convinced that TV Martí will succeed,” then-Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D-S.C.), a major supporter, said in 1989. “Castro likes to tout his revolutionary credentials,” Hollings said. “But he cannot begin to match the revolutionary potential of television.”
As it turned out, he could.
The first broadcast of TV Martí was March 27, 1990. It came in clear in Havana for about 20 minutes. Then the American signal — weakened by distance — was jammed by Cuban broadcasts on the same channel.