BY PABLO BACHELET | MiamiHerald.com
One TV Martí show features an actor portraying Cuban leader Fidel Castro as a cranky and infirm boss. Another has a Havana woman complaining about the nearly constant electricity blackouts.
Most Cubans are unable to view these political satires because of their government’s powerful jamming.
But TV and Radio Martí are preparing to hit the skies this spring with a new broadcasting airplane they hope will improve their ability to break through the jamming and the Cuban government monopoly on the island’s mass media.
The aircraft will replace a Pennsylvania National Guard Commando Solo C-130 that has been transmitting to Cuba for four hours on weekends. The aircraft has also been used to broadcast to Iraq and Afghanistan.
TV and Radio Martí usually broadcast from a blimp tethered in the lower Florida Keys, but it was knocked out by last year’s hurricanes and has not been replaced. Cuba has been largely successful in jamming the signals since the radio opened in 1985 and the TV station followed in 1990.
Supporters say the addition of the mobility and broadcasting strength of the new aircraft, expected to be delivered in the spring, will give the station the technological punch needed to overcome the jamming.
The television station has broadcast on UHF channels from a blimp in Cudjoe Key and on a VHF channel with Commando Solo. It also uses the HispaSat1 satellite. The radio station now broadcasts on shortwave, AM and FM frequencies from transmitters in Marathon and Summerland Key, as well as North Carolina and California.
The new broadcast aircraft will allow Radio Martí to transmit more effectively on the FM band, officials say, and TV Martí to spread its signal well outside Havana, so that Cubans in the provinces will be able to videotape its programs and pass them on.
Cuba’s jamming of both radio and TV signals is strongest around Havana, which has about 2.2 million of the island’s 11 million people. Pedro Roig, the head of Radio/TV Martí, said the Cuban jamming comes from four antennas on some of Havana’s tallest buildings.
Roig said the TV signal will also be added to the DirecTV satellite lineup. Although Cuban regulations make it almost impossible to have a private satellite reception dish, they are easily available on the black market.
‘‘The object is to use as many [transmitting] channels at our disposal,’’ said Joseph O’Connell, the spokesman for the International Broadcasting Bureau in Washington, the U.S. government entity that controls Radio/TV Martí.
TV Martí is also preparing to add a second newscast in the evening, O’Connell said, and the radio and TV news operations were combined earlier last year to improve coverage and efficiency. Radio Martí, which according to surveys of Cubans arriving in Miami, has seen its market share slide in recent years, has changed to an all-news and information format.
Jorge Luis Hernández, director of broadcasting operations of Radio and TV Martí, said management has been trying for a more youthful, modern feel and added more satires to the TV lineup. La Oficina del Jefe—The Office of the Boss—a spoof on Castro, is especially popular, Hernández added.
Congress last month allotted $10 million for the new aircraft, on top of $28 million to cover operating expenses for Radio/TV Martí. The damaged blimp will also be replaced at a cost of $1.7 million. Officials have not determined the kind of aircraft or whether it will be leased or purchased, O’Connell said.
Cuban dissident Vladimiro Roca and independent Havana journalist Angel Pablo Polanco told The Miami Herald in telephone interviews that the broadcasts help counter the propaganda of the Cuban government, which controls the island’s mass media.
But some critics say the stations are a waste of U.S. taxpayers’ money and that the Cuban government should have little difficulty jamming the new plane’s signal.
‘‘Just because the plane’s moving around doesn’t change the fact that [the signal] is broadcast on a frequency. . . . The Cubans figure out what frequency it’s on; they jam it,’’ said John Nichols, a Pennsylvania State University professor who has researched Cuban communications issues.
O’Connell also acknowledged the aircraft will only fly in U.S. airspace—limiting how closely it can approach Cuba—to avoid violating international treaties on telecommunications. Havana has long argued that Radio/TV Martí, even by broadcasting from U.S. airspace, violates the regulations by aiming its signals at Cuba.
But Radio/TV Martí officials insist they have evidence suggesting the aircraft will significantly add to their broadcasting punch.
The station has received more than 600 calls from Cuba during the Commando Solo flights. ‘‘We have never before had such a feedback from people who have seen our broadcast,’’ Roig told The Miami Herald.
Polanco said TV Martí could be viewed for the first time in the provinces, and sometimes on the western and eastern outskirts of the capital, during the Commando Solo flights.
Jammers work by transmitting on the same frequency as the targetted signals. And they usually have the upper hand because they are closer to the receivers, said James Lewis, a former U.S. diplomat.
Lewis said one way to overcome the jamming is to ‘‘punch through’’ by using a more powerful transmitter or broadcasting from multiple sources—like the airplane, blimp and ground stations. Cubans could then counter by boosting the potency of their own jamming stations.
‘‘It’s hard to stress the [jamming] system to the point of failure with something like this,’’ Lewis said, adding that the airplane would be simply ‘‘more annoying’’ to the jammers than a balloon or fixed station. News of the aircraft’s planned purchase also sparked new attacks by critics of Radio/TV Martí who argue the programming lacks credibility among Cubans.
‘‘It abandons news judgment when sensitive issues are in play,’’ said Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst with the Lexington Institute, a conservative Washington think-tank.
Roca said Radio/TV Martí has ‘‘plenty of credibility’’ and added: “It is important that we get different . . . opinions or criteria and news, to break the Cuban government’s news and information blockade.’‘
‘‘We follow [government] standards and guidelines,’’ said TV Martí‘s Hernández. “We try to offer to the people of Cuba the window of opportunity to give them all the information the Cuban government denies them.’’