Grounded TV Marti plane a monument to the limits of American austerity


The grounded TV Marti broadcast plane. (David A. Fahrenthold/The Washington Post)
September 2, 2013

At an airfield in rural Georgia, the U.S. government pays a contractor $6,600 a month for a plane that doesn’t fly.

The plane is a 1960s turboprop with an odd array of antennas on its back end and the name of a Cuban national hero painted on its tail. It can fly, but it doesn’t. Government orders.

“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.

“ ‘La TV que no se ve.’ The TV that can’t be seen,” was what Cubans called it, said Fulton Armstrong, a U.S. official in Havana at the time. Another problem: The early broadcasts happened very late at night, to minimize interference with other Cuban programming. What people saw, Armstrong said, was “a moving shadow of an image of . . . something. At something like 4 a.m.”

The TV signal was first broadcast from a blimp called “Fat Albert,” suspended 10,000 feet over the Florida Keys. But there is weather at 10,000 feet. “Fat Albert” blew off into the Everglades in 1991. It was pulled frequently out of action to dodge high winds.

In 2005, it was torn to bits by Hurricane Dennis, and the government gave up on blimps. Instead, it tried planes.

First, there was a military C-130. It cost too much. Then came “Aero Martí” and a sister aircraft (now retired), smaller planes fitted with broadcasting antennas and flown in a figure-eight pattern in U.S. airspace near Key West.

Since these planes first flew in October 2006, they have cost taxpayers at least $32 million. That’s more than $12,000 a day.

But on Cuban TV sets, they didn’t make much difference. 

In 2008, according to the Government Accountability Office, a telephone survey found about the same viewership as had been reported in 2006. And in 2003. And in 1990. Less than 1 percent (after that, the U.S. government stopped taking the survey, declaring it was impossible to get valid data on Cuban TV habits).

But the planes kept flying.

The program was repeatedly protected from Washington budget-cutters by a coalition of Cuban American lawmakers and non-Cuban legislators from Florida. To them, what looked like the program’s worst problems were actually proof that it had to be saved.

For instance: The broadcasts are jammed. Well, wasn’t that the best evidence of their potential, if the jamming stopped or the Castros fell?

“If it wasn’t important, why would they block the signals? So we know that it’s effective,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said in an interview last week. Other backers include Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

Diaz-Balart also viewed another common criticism of the plane — the cost of the program — as a strong reason to keep it. After all, he said, the government spent a lot of money to turn an airplane into a flying antenna.

“It would . . . be a colossal waste of money” to junk the plane now, Diaz-Balart said.

Years went by. Millions poured in. Then, in 2012, the Obama administration officially gave up.

The federal Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which pays for the plane, asked Congress to eliminate it. The savings: about $2 million a year.

“We have evolved from the airplane to distribute our TV content toward means that we know are popular on the island,” said Carlos A. García Pérez, a Cuban American trial lawyer from Puerto Rico who now heads the office. The station, for instance, now broadcasts on DirectTV, to reach Cubans with pirated satellite dishes. And it burns newscasts onto DVDs and sends 1,000 a week to be handed out by Cuban activist groups and churches.

The plane kept flying.

“No one dislikes TV Martí more than the Cuban government,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, the Washington director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, a group that lobbies for stronger measures against the Castro regime. “Do we therefore, essentially, give in to those efforts by the regime and do their job for them?”

Congress preserved the funding. So from October to this May, the administration spent $751,999 to operate a plane it had declared was not worth the money.

But then came sequestration.

This was a broad hack across the budget, which Congress made after it failed to agree on more targeted budget cuts. At the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, officials found their share of the cut was $1.4 million.

They kept the plane. They cut the flying.

Now, the agency still pays $79,500 a year to keep the aircraft in storage, paying money for nothing in a time when sequestration is causing painful cuts in other programs. That cost, for instance, is roughly equal to the average cost of nine children enrolled in Head Start (at a time when Head Start has eliminated services to 57,000 children because of sequestration).

And the plane does not seem likely to get out of limbo anytime soon.

Congress appears unwilling to kill it and too distracted to focus on small-bore budget cuts. The administration seems unwilling to start flying it again. But they’re also unwilling to get rid of it. What if Congress demanded it back?

“If the government thinks they may someday resurrect the program, then it would not be in their best interest to have us scrap the airplane,” said Dent Thompson, an official at Phoenix Air.

In the meantime, the TV Martí operation is adapting to a future without the plane. Under García Pérez, its content has turned from anti-Castro speeches toward more straight news, including reports about Cuba produced on the island by Cubans themselves. The station reports anecdotal signs of progress: 18,000 daily visits to its Web site. More than 2,600 entries from Cuba to an on-air moped giveaway. Marriage proposals to anchor Karen Caballero, sent electronically from Havana.

But — after 23 years, a blimp, three planes and millions of taxpayer dollars — the operation faces the same problem it did back in 1990. It is a mass broadcast in search of a mass audience.

“Only recently, they have started to deliver some DVDs into the island . . . and persons are very eager to watch this,” Orlando Luis Pardo, an independent blogger in Cuba, said in a telephone interview. He also said people listen to a sister broadcast, Radio Martí. Pardo said the end of the airplane-based broadcasts didn’t change the situation at all: For him, the station was as difficult to watch as it was before.

“TV Martí, unfortunately, was born completely blocked,” he said.

Where do you see government spending? Click here to add your insight to reporter David Fahrenthold’s series on government spending.

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