BY FRANCES ROBLES | Miami Herald
The blimps that carry the TV Martí signal to Havana ruptured last month. The result: less programming than usual.
The ‘‘Fat Albert’’ blimps that broadcast TV Martí to Cuba and scanned the Florida Straits for drug smugglers are skinny now, ruptured by the unforgiving winds of hurricane season.
The $3 million blimps that hovered over the lower Florida Keys were torn apart July 9 in 46 mph winds during Hurricane Dennis, U.S. government officials confirmed.
That means TV Martí‘s 31 ½ hours of weekly programming have been slashed to fewer than 10 hours broadcast by satellite and the U.S. military’s flying radio stations known as Commando Solo C-130s.
Few people watch the U.S.-government station’s programs because Cuba jams the signal. And critics say that the fact it took the U.S. media more than five weeks to notice the blimps were missing proves the station has no impact.
‘‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound?’’ said Joe García, a member of the board of directors of the Cuban-American National Foundation. “Well if a TV Martí balloon blew up but nobody watched it, does it really matter?’‘
The two blimps stationed at Cudjoe Key—dubbed ‘‘Fat Albert’’ after the Bill Cosby character—are more formally known as tethered aerostat systems. Twice the size of Goodyear blimps, they are enormous fabric balloons filled with helium.
Anchored by cables, they carry radars used to spot drug-smuggling airplanes and boats and the equipment that broadcast programs to Cuba, where the government controls virtually all the news media.
OUT OF TIME
When there is time, the Air Force, which operates the blimps, deflates the aerostats before a big storm. But it takes at least three days and low winds to accomplish that, and Dennis didn’t offer either.
The storm passed through the Keys in the early hours of July 9, dumping six inches of rain and killing one person. The Air Force removed the equipment and docked the twin Alberts to their mooring towers to let them ride it out, said Air Force spokesman Maj. Vic Hines.
‘‘My sense is that they were torn up,’’ Hines said.
The last time a storm destroyed one of the blimps was in 1998, when Hurricane Georges ripped through the Keys. Another blimp broke free in 1981 and was shot down by a fighter jet.
Air Force officials said the drug surveillance knocked out by Dennis was picked up by other radars, and a replacement aerostat is almost online. But there is no timetable for the one for TV Martí, an $11.2 million-a-year program that offers a broad range of news and other programming with an anti-Castro twist.
A spokesman for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, the U.S. government entity that runs TV and Radio Martí, said the television station is still broadcasting about eight hours a week: four hours by satellite, which requires a special dish for reception not widely available in Cuba, and another four broadcast Saturday evenings by the C130 airplane.
Radio Martí has not been affected because its signal is broadcast from other locations.
The loss of the blimp ‘‘is regrettable, because it’s one of the ways the TV signal gets to Cuba,’’ said Office of Cuba Broadcasting spokesman Joe O’Connell. “But on the other hand, it’s the one the Cubans jam.’‘
Herald calls to the station’s Miami office were not returned.
The communist government has long jammed the TV and radio signals fairly successfully, particularly in Havana, which holds 2.2 million of Cuba’s 11 million people.
‘‘You can’t really see the shows during the week,’’ Angel Pablo Polanco, an independent journalist in Havana, said in a telephone interview. “The signal we’re getting is the one that comes on Saturdays with the C-130. We’re getting that signal better than ever.’‘
Polanco said Cubans enjoy the Saturday shows because they offer a sharply different view of the news. ‘‘People love it,’’ Polanco said.
WASTE OF MONEY?
Since Radio Martí went on the air 20 years ago, the U.S. government has spent about $100 million on the program, which has been blasted by people such as the Foundation’s García as a patronage mill and a waste of taxpayers’ money.
The Senate is considering a proposal to set aside $37.6 million in funding for the broadcasts to Cuba, including $10 million for the purchase of a C-130 dedicated exclusively to Cuba broadcasts.
The current C-130 is operated by the U.S. military. The planes’ signals are difficult to jam because of its constantly shifting locations.