Tester's Take: Where Is Commando
By Hank Tester
June 28, 2004 / MIAMI -- "The weather is great, so why aren't they
flying the plane?" asked one of my sources in the Cuban exile community.
"The plane" is a C-130 operated by the 193rd Special Operations Wing of
the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.
My source is not the only one asking. In fact, the question about the
plane comes up often when I am working stories in Little Havana. When
the crowd in front of the Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho starts
talking about President George W. Bush's get-tough policy on Cuba,
someone always asks, "Donde esta Commando Solo?"
Commando Solo is the nickname for six four-engine C-130 transport planes
packed with radio and television transmitters. They have seen service in
Southeast Asia, Panama, Grenada, Haiti, Desert Shield, Desert Storm,
Afghanistan and Iraq. Their mission is to broadcast radio and television
programs and propaganda to populations who are limited to viewing and
listening to their government-controlled media. The cost of each
aircraft is $90 million.
On May 20, 2003 one of the aircraft flew near Cuba transmitting a
message to the Cuban people from President Bush.
But why should we fly the plane at all?
Fidel Castro's government jams the signals of Radio & TV Marti. Cuban
exiles have pushed the Office of Cuba Broadcasting to punch through the
jamming. TV & Radio Marti's critics have charged that the operation is a
waste of taxpayer's money.
Exiles, however, see it differently. "Make it work," they say.
One exile, Jose Basulto, loaded his Brothers to the Rescue Cessna with
TV gear and sent pictures and sound into the island. The exile's say if
Basulto can do it, why can't the U.S. government do the same with the
Commando Solo operation?"
Late this spring the Bush administration announced sweeping changes in
policy towards Fidel Castro's Cuba. Critics charged the recommendations
made by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba was nothing more
than pandering to the Cuban exile community, a group Bush needs to keep
in his camp to ensure a election victory in November.
There had been rumblings among the exiles that Bush, like most
presidents since the 1960s, had talked tough but never did much about
Cuba. The new Bush Policy restricted travel to the island, put a squeeze
on the funds and goods exiles could send to relatives, and making use of
the Helms-Burton law, forced at least one hotel ownership group to walk
away from their properties on the Island.
It was, however, the promise to deploy the Commando Solo aircraft that
captured the hard-line anti-Castro Exiles interest. For once folks on
the island would "get the truth."
The problem is that months after it was announced, Command Solo has not
flown. Trying to find out why is difficult. The Office of Cuba
Broadcasting says to call the State Department. The State Department
says to call the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
Calls to the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, who fly the C-130's, are
met with friendly conversation, indicating that they do not know much
about the potential mission. "We have heard about it but we are not
tasked, so there is not much I can say," one public information officer
Sources tell me that the delay is due to an argument between lawyers at
the Department of State. The issue is whether use of Commando Solo in
Cuba could violate international law.
Security is another concern. Any U.S. military aircraft approaching the
Cuban coast certainly will be in the cross hairs of Castro's radar.
But would Castro dare hassle with a C-130?
He did after all personally order the shoot down of two Brothers to the
Rescue aircraft in 1996. There's no question the C-130 would have to be
escorted by U.S. fighter planes.
That brings up the issue of expense. I was told by one source close to
Radio & TV Marti that the cost for each Commando Solo flight hovers
around $500,000. Others dispute that number but say flying is expensive
and if the project is to be successful, the airplanes have to fly every
day for consistency.
Is there perhaps a simpler explanation? Maybe the politicos advising the
Bush campaign are saying to hold off on the flights till later in the
election year. Flying closer to the election for better effect might be
the real story.
President Bush is positioning himself as the one chief executive who has
aggressively picked up the anti-Castro mantle, not with words but with
action. However, to date the C-130s from the Pennsylvania Air Guard have
not been called to transmit Radio & TV Marti.
Meanwhile, the exiles continue to ask, "¿Dónde esta Commando Sólo?"
Source: La Nueva Cuba
* Hank Tester is a general assignment reporter for NBC 6. He often
writes for the NBC 6 Web site and appears mornings on WFFG and WGMX-FM,