Some of the most bizarre incidents in American foreign policy have centered on that Caribbean thorn in our side—Cuba. From strange assassination attempts on Castro (two words: exploding cigars) to the infamous Bay of Pigs fiasco, we’ve had some real humdingers of ill-advised Cuban intervention. And though relations between the old enemy nations have been thawing somewhat for a number of years, just this week the State Department revealed the end to what’s been called “one of the most ineffective and widely criticized programs of the last decade aimed at undermining the Cuban government.”
Plane to Freedom
Let’s take a look at Operation AeroMarti. No doubt wishing to replicate previous U.S. efforts to broadcast Western radio to countries under the Iron Curtain (which had varying levels of success), in 2006 the State Department commissioned a multimillion-dollar project to fly an airplane around Cuba transmitting pro-democracy “Martis” shows to inhabitants of the heavily-censored nation. (“Martis” refers to 19th century Cuban national hero and intellectual José Martí, who advocated for Cuba’s independence from Spain, and, ironically, warned of U.S. expansionism into the island).
The broadcasts included everything from baseball games to local news to interviews with anti-Castro dissidents. The idea? Allow the people to hear the true story about their lot in life, and empower them to rebel against their oppressors!
One problem: The Cuban government consistently jammed the broadcast signal of the plane, leaving less than one percent of the population able to listen to its content.
Going with a Fight
This massive inefficiency was clear to the federal agency that runs the Martis programming, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which repeatedly asked Congress to ground the pricey plane. But hardline anti-Castro members of Congress rejected the recommendations and repeatedly renewed funding for the plane to freedom anyway.
In the end, sequestration had a way of even convincing some of these hold-outs, and in fiscal 2014 funding for the plane’s fuel and pilots evaporated. AeroMarti’s final cost over its seven-year life came out to $35.6 million. Not bad for a useless diplomacy effort, eh?
Future of Martis
But all is not lost in the world of the Martis. The BBG feels this programming is still significant to those lucky souls it actually reaches. They point to the tendency of Cuban human rights activists’ to visit the Martis headquarters when travel restrictions were lifted in 2013. Thus the BBG is focusing on various other means of dissemination: passing out good old-fashioned DVDs and flash drives, broadcasting via satellite and introducing a new smartphone application.
It's unclear if or how much the latter two methods might get blocked by Havana. The thrill of the (super-expensive) hunt!