After eight years and more than $35 million, Congress has ended a government program that broadcast American television content over Cuban airwaves via an airplane.
The program, known as AeroMarti, was shut down in April when its funding was left out of the 2014 federal budget. But the closure received little attention at the time — perhaps because politicians, industry experts, and even the group running AeroMarti began requesting its end almost as soon as it started.
“The Broadcasting Board of Governors had been asking Congress for years to let this agency stop using AeroMartí permanently,” said Lynne Weil, the director of communications at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent federal agency tasked with running the AeroMarti program. "The BBG welcomes the final ending of the AeroMartí program.”
Launched in 2006, AeroMarti consisted of an airplane circling Cuba and transmitting American broadcast programming over the country’s airwaves. Programming included soap operas and baseball games, though most was political and news content. Problem was, the Cuban government jammed the signal coming from the plane within hours of AeroMarti’s launch. As a result, very few households could actually access it.
“It was never seen and therefore it had no effect on the audience in Cuba," said John Nichols, a Penn State University professor and US-Cuba telecommunications expert.
'America's Cuban policy in general is much more about domestic politics than the reality of the situation in Cuba.'
In the BBG’s request for Congress to eliminate the AeroMarti program, the organization explained that funding cuts had reduced broadcast hours. Furthermore, the agency explained the jammed broadcast “significantly” limited the “platform’s reach and impact on the island.”
“AeroMarti has proven to be an ineffective program and an awful waste of US tax dollars,” Arizona Senator Jeff Flake told VICE News.
The operation itself also crossed into murky waters in regard to international treaties and law. The US was using frequencies intended for Cuban use and domestic access. Nichols said the US illegally used the frequencies, in violation of international agreements and rulings.
“If the US violates international law in order to achieve a political end, it loses the high ground,” Nichols said. “It’s hard to argue with other countries that don’t obey the law if we’re not obeying the law.”
Despite requests from the BBG and Congressional testimony from Nichols early on in the program, Congress continued to approve the funding year after year.
“The agency has long argued that there are better ways to convey reliable news and information to the people of Cuba, including through more cost-effective and interactive means,” Weil said.
The program’s total bill, footed by the US government, landed at $35.6 million. Even after the plane was grounded in a Georgia hanger while in budget limbo, Foreign Policy reported that it still cost taxpayers $6,000 each month.
According to Nichols, the complexity of US-Cuban politics played a role in keeping the AeroMarti alive. “Cuban policy in general is much more about domestic politics than the reality of the situation in Cuba,” he said.
In the beginning, the program was supported by the likes of senators Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Marco Rubio of Florida, as well as Florida representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, all presiding over districts with large Cuban populations known for their anti-Castro stance.
“The Obama administration gains little or nothing by getting in a fight about whether or not to fund a bizarre propaganda station,” Nichols said. “Political losses for the Obama administration for such a small change are probably fairly large.”
Nichols added that the approach the US government takes with Cuba must be better tailored to the country and its citizens.
“We'd do much more good," Senator Flake said, "just letting Americans travel freely to Cuba.”
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB
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