By David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post
CARTERSVILLE, Ga. — 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.
Editor’s Note: In 1988, longtime television director-writer-editor Jose Rafael Fernandez Brenes jumped ship from a Cuban merchant vessel in Canada. To all appearances, Fernandez was at sea to develop a television program about Cuba’s merchant marine. While his media background was legitimate, Fernandez was also a DGI agent sent to undermine the US government’s establishment of TV Marti. After his faked defection, Fernandez met with his Case Officer in New York City. Afterwards, living under the guise of a refugee, he interviewed with Radio Marti. At the time, Radio Marti was one of Havana’s most pressing foreign policy concerns.
Within months, he held a government job. From 1988 through 1991, Fernandez helped establish and operate TV Marti, the federal entity that broadcasts news and information to Cuba. In March 1990, TV Marti began broadcasting and was surprised to find its signal immediately jammed by Havana. Fernandez had secretly provided Havana with the technical data and frequencies needed to effectively block TV Marti’s signal. The US learned Fernandez’s true identity when he returned to Cuba in 1991 told his story to a Cuban newspaper.
To capitalize upon its espionage success, Cuba’s Communications Ministry invited domestic and foreign journalists to attend a ceremony marking Havana’s jamming of TV Marti. Leftist US journalist Ron Ridenour attended the event and was actually selected to give the order to jam TV Marti. Within minutes of going on the air, Havana had neutralized TV Marti.