"Working together for a free Cuba"



Tester's Take: Where Is Commando Solo?
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 said.

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, Marathon, Fla.