MIAMI, JAN. 17 -- TV Marti, the controversial government-funded television station that beams baseball films, soap operas and news from the United States to Cuba, has been blown off the air -- not by Fidel Castro but by gusting winds.
The broadcasts stopped early Wednesday after the Air Force blimp containing TV Marti's transmitter broke loose from its tether over the Florida Keys and drifted into the Everglades.
Officials are trying to determine how best to extract the deflated blimp and its cargo of high-technology equipment from a dense mangrove forest at the southwest edge of Everglades National Park.
The broadcasts to Cuba began last March amid congressional criticism that TV Marti was an unnecessary expense, that its equipment frequently would be out of commission because of bad weather and that jamming by the Cuban government would prevent many Cubans from receiving the broadcasts.
Backers argued that TV Marti, named for Cuban patriot Jose Marti, and its sister station, Radio Marti, were essential to ensure a free flow of information about the United States to Cuban citizens. But critics maintained that Cubans already could tune into various radio and television programs originating on Caribbean islands.
This week, the Air Force blimp, known as "Fat Albert," broke free from its tether off Cudhoe Key as it was being lowered for maintenance, according to a spokesman at TV Marti's Washington headquarters. Normally, the blimp is raised to 10,000 feet to transmit broadcasts 100 miles to Cuba.
"TV Marti had just gone off the air for the day," said Joe O'Connell, the spokesman. "The balloon began to drift toward the Everglades National Park."
Officials chased Fat Albert to a southwestern corner of the park by helicopter and deflated it so it could be lowered.
O'Connell said it appears that sophisticated electronic equipment in the blimp was not seriously damaged and that TV Marti may be back on the air soon. He said bad weather prevents TV Marti's transmitter from operating about 20 percent of the time.
TV Marti went on the air as a $7.5 million experiment last March 27. In August, based on the results of four months of test broadcasts, President Bush signed legislation making TV Marti permanent. It is funded at $16 million for 1991.
The General Accounting Office criticized two surveys that estimated viewership at between 1 million and 7 million Cubans. The GAO observed that U.S. diplomats in Havana reported that TV Marti was effectively jammed and estimated viewership at between 50,000 and 70,000.