- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
The United States officially ended one of the most ineffective and widely criticized programs of the last decade aimed at undermining the Cuban government, the State Department revealed Monday.
Foggy Bottom’s inspector general released a report showing that AeroMarti, a multimillion-dollar boondoggle that involved flying an airplane around Cuba and beaming American-sponsored content to the island’s inhabitants, quietly ended in April. Since launching in 2006, the program was plagued by a simple problem: Every day the plane flew, Havana jammed its broadcast signal, meaning fewer than 1 percent of Cubans could listen to its TV and radio shows.
The federal agency that runs the program, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, repeatedly asked Congress to ground the plane because of its exorbitant expense and dubious effectiveness. But for years, hard-line members of Congress opposed to Fidel Castro rejected the agency’s recommendations and renewed funding for the "public diplomacy" effort.
According to the inspector general’s report, the troubled program was finally spiked when money for it was quietly left out of fiscal year 2014 appropriations. Unfortunately for taxpayers, AeroMarti’s final cost exceeded previous estimates, racking up a $35.6 million tab over its seven-year life.
"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 program initially was backed by prominent anti-Castro lawmakers, such as Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and then-Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, both Florida Republicans.
However, support for AeroMarti declined as even the BBG acknowledged the inefficacy of the program. "The signal is heavily jammed by the Cuban government, significantly limiting this platform’s reach and impact on the island," read the administration’s 2014 budget request.
"The BBG board voted for several years in a row to include grounding the plane in its budget," BBG spokeswoman Lynne Weil said on Monday. "I don’t know how much harder one would have to push. It was in the budget request."
One of the longest holdouts was Ros-Lehtinen, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee whose district includes Miami-Dade County. Ros-Lehtinen consistently declines to comment about her support for AeroMarti, which she did again today.
As sequestration hit departments across the board in fiscal 2014, funding for the plane’s fuel and pilots dried up. The plane was grounded in a hangar in Georgia. However, taxpayers paid $6,600 a month to house the twin-engine turboprop until April, when the program was finally killed for good.
For critics, the program’s failure calls into question America’s decades-long information war against the Castro regime. BBG, the independent federal agency that produces Voice of America and similar programs, continues programming for Radio Marti — started in 1985 — and TV Marti, launched in 1990. They broadcast everything from baseball games to local news to weather reports to interviews with anti-Castro dissidents. Collectively, the government has spent well more than $500 million on the "Martis."
The BBG is enthusiastic about other methods of bringing Marti programming to Cuban viewers and listeners: disseminating DVDs, doling out flash drives, broadcasting via satellite, and even a new smartphone application.
"We have evolved to what our market demands," Carlos Garcia-Perez, director of the BBG’s Office of Cuba Broadcasting, told Foreign Policy last year. "We’re no longer just a TV and radio and internet operation; we’re a multimedia operation."