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.