Dead air: US spends $24 million on anti-Castro TV nobody can watch

Brendan Bordelon | Contributor

In an effort to bring objective news to communist-controlled Cuba, over the past six years the U.S. government paid over $24 million to keep aloft a plane beaming anti-Castro TV programming to the Caribbean island.

The only problem? Nobody’s watching.

The Cuban government has blocked the transmissions since the AeroMarti program began in 2007, making the broadcasts impossible to see or hear in all but the most rural parts of the country.

“The AeroMarti signal is effectively jammed in urban areas, and you just can’t receive it,” said Penn State University professor John Nichols in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“If the intended audience is cows in the Cuban countryside, maybe there is some audience,” he continued.

The AeroMarti program is a subset of TV Marti, an operation run by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Office of Cuba Broadcasting.

The plane normally flies near Cuba in a figure-8 pattern for hours while transmitting baseball games, local news and interviews with anti-Castro activists. In 2010 its budget was slashed from $5 million to $2 million, and the program was temporarily grounded following sequestration cuts that took effect earlier this year.

But it’s Congress that will ultimately decide AeroMarti’s fate. For the past two years, the BBG has asked lawmakers to cease funding the wasteful flights. “The signal is heavily jammed by the Cuban government, significantly limiting this platform’s reach and impact on the island,” they claimed in their fiscal year 2014 budget request.

Hard-liners in Congress, however, refuse to budge. Foreign Policy reports that Cuban-American lawmakers like New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez and Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen are among the program’s most ardent supporters.

Others in Congress oppose not only the AeroMarti program, but the entire slew of radio and TV programming under the Marti banner. “It’s hard to believe we are still wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on beaming a jammed TV signal – that fewer than 1 percent of Cubans can see – from an airplane to the island,” Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake told Foreign Policy.

A spokesperson for the senator told TheDCNF that he views the entire program as “ineffective” and “not a good use of taxpayer dollars.”

Nichols agrees with the senator’s claim, arguing that the program violates international law and that even the Internet and satellite programming that reaches the island is rarely watched by most Cubans.

“When Cubans have a choice to watch TV Marti, they don’t,” he said. “They may not like Cuban government channel — they may find them as dull as dishwater — but that doesn’t meant they would necessarily migrate to TV Marti.”

That hasn’t stopped the U.S. government from spending over half a billion dollars on Marti programming since Radio Marti first aired in 1985. Despite having nearly thirty years to perfect the program, the inefficiencies seem to have only grown.

“That’s one of the great ironies of TV Marti,” Nichols said. “You spend all this money and have all these fancy technologies and it’s not received, and even if it were received I think it’s an open question of whether it would be watched.”

But even with all it apparent problems, Nichols believes AeroMarti will survive the harsh budget climate in Washington.

“It’s just too easy for members of Congress to vote for it,” he explained. “It’s not a lot of money in the total scheme of things, and they get to say ‘I’m tough on these renegade countries, I’m tough on communism.’”

“It’s an easy vote,” he concluded.

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