After years of a being criticized as wasteful and 'ineffective,' a U.S.-funded anti-Cuba propaganda campaign consisting of a plane that flew around the island broadcasting TV signals aimed at destabilizing the Communist government has finally come to an end, the U.S. State Department revealed (pdf) on Monday.
The program, started in 2006 and dubbed 'AeroMarti' after the Cuban hero of independence Jose Marti, consisted of a single plane that would beam signals to the island––signals that the Cuban government promptly blocked, meaning fewer than one percent of Cubans could actually receive the broadcasts.
“If the intended audience is cows in the Cuban countryside, maybe there is some audience," noted Penn State communications professor John Nichols last year. “The AeroMarti signal is effectively jammed in urban areas." In 2009 Nichols testified at a Congressional hearing on the TV station beamed by the plane, stating that it violated international law.
While previous estimates of the taxpayer cost over the last seven years had put the amount at $24 million, the inspector general's report put that amount at $35.6 million.
"AeroMarti has proven to be an ineffective program and an awful waste of U.S. tax dollars," Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) stated on Monday. "It would certainly be good news if taxpayers were able to wash their hands of it."
"The BBG [Broadcasting Board of Governors] board voted for several years in a row to include grounding the plane in its budget," BBG spokeswoman Lynne Weil said on Monday, according to Foreign Policy. "I don't know how much harder one would have to push."
Yet, anti-Castro members of Congress refused to defund the "public diplomacy" program even after that sequence of budget requests from the BBG. Across the board sequestration cuts eventually forced the plane out of the air a couple of years ago, but until April the state department was still paying a contractor "just enough money to do nothing," as the Washington Post put it.
The downing of the plane doesn't mean an end to anti-Cuba media funded by the State Department making its way to the island. The program is part of a larger and supremely wasteful propaganda machine aimed at Cuba, according to critics. Radio Marti was first launched on May 20, 1985, through a top secret directive signed by President Reagan, and while the AeroMarti plane was launched in 2006, TV Marti has been around since 1990. The program was initially broadcast from a blimp nicknamed "Fat Albert" that was suspended 10,000 feet above the Florida Keys. Its signal came in clear in Havana for about twenty minutes before the Cuban government jammed the weak signal with its own broadcasts.
The BBG's Office of Cuba Broadcasting is still producing programming for the "Martis," which have cost taxpayers around $500 million since they began. The office attempts to reach Cubans that have fashioned pirated satellite dishes through DirecTV satellite broadcasts, and sends 1,000 DVDs of burnt newscasts a week to the island.
"We have evolved to what our market demands," Carlos Garcia-Perez, director of the BBG's Office of Cuba Broadcasting, told Foreign Policy. "We're no longer just a TV and radio and internet operation, we're a multimedia operation."
The inspector general's report found that morale at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting in general is quite low, but also praised the office for maintaining “good working relationships with various U.S. federal agencies,” including the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The USAID underwent criticism earlier this year when an AP investigation found that the agency had covertly funded the creation of a social network by a series of shell companies with the goal of destabilizing the Cuban government.