The U.S. government is paying $6,600 per month to maintain a grounded plane that is supposed to be broadcasting uncensored news and propaganda to the Cuban people in an effort to subvert the communist regime of Fidel Castro.
"Aero Marti," a 1960s turboprop plane designed to broadcast an American-run television station dubbed TV Marti into Cuba from the sky, was grounded due to the across-the-board sequester cuts that ended funding for pilots and fuel, The Washington Post reported Tuesday
. Today it sits in an empty hanger at a rural airfield near Cartersville, Ga. rather than flying its routine figure eight patters off Key West, Fla.
"It's hard to state how ridiculous it is" that taxpayers are having to pay for a plane that's just sitting there, said Philip Peters, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Cuba Research Center.
Peters acknowledged that the plane broadcasts never really worked that well in the first place because they 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," he said.
According to Fulton Armstrong, a U.S. official living in Havana when the TV Marti program was launched back in the early 1990s, all people could see of the broadcast was "a moving shadow of an image of . . . . something. At something like 4 a.m."
"'La TV que no se ve.' The TV that can't be seen," is what Cubans called it, Fulton told the Post.
When TV Marti first began, the signal was broadcast from a blimp that was later destroyed by Hurricane Dennis in 2005. A military C-130 was used for a while, but it cost too much to keep in the air. In 2006, two smaller turboprop planes were put in use to broadcast the signal as they flew off Key West. Since, the price for maintaining them has reached at least $32 million, or about $12,000 a day.
Critics of the TV Marti program still say that it's not worth the price and cite a Government Accountability Office study that says the broadcasts reach only about 1 percent of the Cuban population. Nonetheless, lawmakers still refused to cut funding for the program, even though it happens to be grounded at the moment.
"If it wasn't important, why would they block the signals? So we know that it's effective," Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida told The Post.
In addition to Diaz-Balart, Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, both of Florida, as well Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey, all support continuing the program.
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