The Government's Single Biggest Boondoggle?

I’m on a five-year personal quest to climb Mt. Everest, but a bigger quest I have undertaken is the attempt to find the biggest government boondoggle and waste -- and to offer solutions.

I have a leading candidate in the Office of Cuban Broadcasting (OCB), Radio and TV Marti.

If you did something for almost half a century every day, and every day it didn’t work, would you keep doing it in the hope that one day, someday, it will start working? Or would you be rational and find a different strategy, knowing that doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity?

Welcome to Cuban insanity. The Cuban vote is a swing vote in a swing state (Florida) and as such no politician wants to appear soft. So, we treat Cuba differently than every regime in the world and keep implementing the same policies that have achieved virtually no results in an effort to get the Cuban vote in Florida.

I have highlighted the expense of Gitmo and the naval base in Cuba in a previous article here, and how our country could achieve the same thing with a fraction of the costs. I will now suggest an alternative for the greater boondoggle of the OCB:

I love to fish in the flats of the Keys for bonefish, and everyone who fishes there for the first time gets pointed out “Fat Albert” by a local. Fat Albert is a large, round transmission balloon that is one part of Radio and TV Marti to broadcast American interests into Cuba.

The OCB was first developed in 1983 by Ronald Reagan to broadcast Spanish-speaking programs into Cuba to fight communism. Radio Marti (named after Cuban writer Jose Marti) launched on May 20, 1985, and TV Marti launched in 1990.

The current budget of Office of Cuba Broadcasting is $60.6 million ($54.2 million public cost and $6.4 million intra-government cost) as part of a larger strategy of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) budget of $798.3 million. However, while BBG has detailed reports of listeners for its other programming, there is none for OCB. In detailed analysis of all departments of BBG, one theme is common: after OCB “n/a” follows, the only program in the BBG to have that distinction.

Voice of America, the largest portion of BBG, has a budget of $362.6 million and reaches 141.1 million people in places like Afghanistan, Georgia, Africa, China and the Middle East. VOA promotes independent news in places with targeted efforts in authoritarian and closed places.

The success of the BBG is in debate. The Government Accountability Office questioned whether the structure of the BBG was effective way back in 2004, and Senator Tom Colburn took it one step further in 2010, stating, "The BBG is the most worthless organization in the federal government. It's full of people who know nothing about media or foreign policy."

The BBG defends itself with facts from the Arab Spring followup survey pointing out that 25% more people in Cairo and Alexandria got their news from Alhurra and Radio Sawa (divisions of BBG) than from CNN and the BBC, and the audience doubled during that time to 8 million in the Middle East. Also, BBG points out the life-saving tips given during humanitarian disasters to hundreds of thousands of people.

However, no dispute is made about OCB-Radio and TV Marti. TV Marti is effectively blocked throughout Cuba -- a survey done by International Broadcasting Bureau showed less than 2% of Cubans listen to Radio and TV Marti and only a third of 1% in another survey watch TV Marti. Both radio and TV are blocked in Havana and in most of Cuba.

In fact, the scrambling of TV Marti is well known, but the extent is not; we are spending millions to send a TV signal into a place that perhaps no one, or virtually no one, even receives, much less watches.

BBG, in its fiscal 2011 Performance and Accountability Report, replied to having  no audience for OCB despite a $60 million budget by saying that “watching of TV Marti is relatively rare” and radio has a “common experience” among those who listen. BBG stopped taking its own surveys in 2008, despite having detailed and audited information from Somalia to Pakistan on every other form of communication.

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) in April 2010, in a report issued by the bipartisan Senate Committee on Foreign Relations he chaired, said, “Radio and TV Martí have failed to make any discernible inroads into Cuban society or to influence the Cuban government.”

According to the GAO, the US government has funded OCB with $660 million. GAO states that “BBG produced a strategic plan for broadcasting to Cuba and submitted it to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations in August 2011. We assessed BBG's strategic plan and found it lacked key information. Of the six requirements in the directive, we found BBG's strategic plan fully addressed one and partially addressed the remaining five.”

BBG claims that the missing information was due to a lack of clarity on audience size.

TV Marti says it is revamping programming to attract a younger audience, hard to do when your signal is blocked and you have no audience. Also, it's hard to compete when Cuban TV itself carries “Grey’s Anatomy”, “Desperate Housewives” and other US programming.

A 2009 GAO report stated that 30% of Cubans had watched CNN in 2005-2006. CNN has an audience in Cuba and we spend over half a billion sending a signal that is blocked?

So, what to do? Stop funding it immediately; we have wasted two-thirds of a billion dollars on a ridiculous and worthless policy. Fund programs that work, or at least stop funding this boondoggle.

Fund radio and TV broadcasts already in existence. Forget political ideology and find one or two that work -- NPR, Air America, or other news stations -- that are already producing content that are unbiased. We could plug this into existing broadcast channels with far smaller cost and far greater results from better programming.

Wikipedia provides information to the world and works on only a $17 million budget. Fund them instead.

Or do nothing but defund OCB. It's a worthless program that has not produced one tangible result in almost three decades with $660 million spent.

I may not make Everest -- though I plan to try -- but I am getting closer to finding the government’s greatest boondoggles and offering solutions.