Transmission Impossible

Television Martí, the $9.4 million per year U.S. government station that broadcasts to Cuba, has been fighting for survival since its birth nine years ago. Fidel Castro's regime has long jammed the signal so intensively that the station barely registers on Cuban viewership surveys. In the United States a congressional contingent has fought fiercely (and unsuccessfully) each year to kill funding for the broadcasts. And there have been technical glitches: Hurricane damage to the airborne balloon that once held TV Martí's transmitter has knocked the station off the air for days at a time, and one storm blew the blimp from its location over Cudjoe Key into the Everglades, where government teams had to hunt it down like a rogue elephant.

Now TV Martí's tiny Cuban audience has become even more miniscule. The station lost its transmission balloon on October 1, and it will be months before broadcasts can resume. Programming continues via satellite feed, but that's almost irrelevant, as most of the island's citizens don't have the equipment necessary to read the signal. (Most Cuban televisions use an antenna.) Moreover few people are awake from 3:30 until 6:30 a.m., the only hours the station is on the air. While the satellite broadcasts can be seen throughout Latin America, TV Martí's target audience is limited to "a few bored Cuban government officials and hardly anybody else," in the words of a Deutsche Presse-Agentur dispatch filed this past July by reporter Jim Anderson.

Thus U.S. taxpayers have been spending some $25,000 per day for a month and a half of blank screens. "We're trying very hard to get another balloon," says Joe O'Connell, director of external affairs for the International Broadcasting Bureau, a division of the agency that oversees all U.S. overseas broadcasts. "The schedule is unchanged and production continues. They didn't stop producing programs."

TV Martí's usual fare is news, roundtable political-discussion programs, and entertainment-oriented talk shows. It's the only U.S.-sponsored foreign TV operation other than the Armed Forces Radio-Television Service. Along with Radio Martí, the television station is considered by some to be an important element in U.S. policy toward Cuba's closed socialist society.

The station never owned a balloon, also called an aerostat, on which a transmitter can be mounted. TV Martí has contracted with the air force to "park" its equipment on one of several military aerostats stationed over the Caribbean. Various government agencies use the radar-equipped dirigibles in drug interdiction and surveillance efforts.

Over the years complaints about the blimp-sharing have surfaced. Some military people worried the TV transmissions could inhibit drug enforcement; others were merely annoyed that air force resources were tied up in an ineffectual project. "It's true none of the air force people could stand TV Martí," offers a former employee of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB). "They resented the fact they had to crank this thing up every night and put TV Martí, which nobody sees, on the air." Still, owing mainly to the enormous clout wielded by the Martís' founding fathers, principally the late Jorge Mas Canosa and his Cuban American National Foundation, nobody messed with the Martís.

But Mas Canosa died in 1997, and several months later the air force announced it planned to cancel the balloon arrangement. (Numerous calls to air force officials in Miami and Washington failed to elicit a comment on this coincidence.)

President Bill Clinton has paid some attention to the station during its succession of crises. In January 1998 Clinton announced his administration would step up efforts to fund improvements of TV Martí broadcasts and allotted the station top priority on an air force balloon. Then this past October 25, Clinton vetoed a budget appropriations bill containing money for a new aerostat. (Martí funding was not the reason for the veto.)

Congressional supporters of Radio and TV Martí, which are operated by the OCB in Miami, insist prospects have never been brighter. The approximately $700,000 needed for a new aerostat is available within the existing $22 million OCB budget, says Stephen Vermillion, chief of staff for Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Miami, one of the Martís' primary congressional advocates. It's just a matter of including the item in a bill the president will sign, Vermillion adds.

And for the first time, Vermillion and others believe, TV Martí's existence probably will not be seriously challenged in Congress. The crusading leader of the anti-TV Martí forces, Colorado Rep. David Skaggs, retired last year.

"Now the money's there for the balloon," declares Vermillion, who asserts his office has been trying for years to find a new blimp and implement new technical strategies to counter Castro's jamming. "[The balloon] has been ordered. It's going through the [Department of Defense] procurement process, so there's no way of telling when it will be up. But the TV Martí mission continues."


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