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.
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