MIAMI — Every evening from Monday to Saturday, a small twin-engine prop plane taxis down the runway past combat-ready jet-fighters at Naval Air Station, Key West.
The commuter aircraft takes off and banks to the south over the deep-blue Florida Straits as pilot and crew prepare for their nightly invasion of Cuba.
Their mission: to spread democracy there by serving as an airborne broadcast platform for a US Spanish-language television network known as TV Martí.
Welcome to the newest front in Washington's propaganda war against Fidel Castro and his brother, Raúl. With Cuba's leader said to be frail but recovering from surgery and his brother provisionally designated as his successor, US officials are stepping up efforts to encourage the Cuban people to end Mr. Castro's 47-year revolution with a revolution of their own.
Officials with the Miami-based Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), an arm of the US government, are quick to point out that their twin-prop Grumman G-1 at no time leaves international air space. Nonetheless, the Cuban government views the operation as the equivalent of a full-on invasion of Cuban sovereignty.
How effective this information 'invasion' may be is a matter of considerable debate. The Cubans have worked to jam TV Martí for years. The new plane and its high-powered transmitter were pressed into action Aug. 5 and are still in the testing phase. But officials say initial indications are positive.
"It is getting through. We have reports from Havana [and] Matanzas ... that it is being seen," says Alberto Mascaro, OCB's chief of staff. "Every day, it is getting better as they fine-tune the equipment."
Critics scoff at such claims. They see information warfare directed at Cuba as an expensive boondoggle related more to the political power of anti-Castro Cuban-Americans than to any demonstrable impact on bringing free elections to Cuba.
The US government has spent nearly $500 million to fund Radio Martí since 1985 and TV Martí since 1990. The Cuban government responded with an array of frequency jammers in and around Havana, and opponents of the propaganda effort say it has achieved little more than bringing very expensive "snow" to Cuban television screens.
"The bottom line is that TV Martí since the day it went on the air, regardless of the technology used, has virtually no audience. Every new technology that they have announced has not worked; it is very easy to jam," says John Nichols, a communications professor at Penn State University and coauthor of the book "Clandestine Radio Broadcasting."
Last month, a presidential commission recommended measures aimed at hastening the transition to democracy in post-Castro Cuba. One recommendation was to break Castro's information blockade. "The regime fears the day that the Cuban people have full access to independent information," it said.
Radio Martí programming has been somewhat more successful than TV Martí in evading jamming, but analysts say it nonetheless has failed to attract a large and loyal audience after more than 20 years in operation. One government estimate in 2005 said only 1.7 percent of Cubans were regular listeners.
But that hasn't slowed US efforts to find new and better ways to get information into Cuba. When TV Martí first started, it was broadcast from a blimp attached to a cable 10,000 feet above Cudjoe Key in the Florida Keys.
After the signals were easily blocked in Havana, the US responded with transmissions from a C-130 transport plane. Those broadcasts were also blocked. Now, TV Martí officials hope the new plane – with state-of-the-art equipment – will generate a signal strong enough to punch through the jammers.
That's not the only front in this information warfare. In 2003, TV Martí began beaming its signal throughout the island via satellite. The Cuban government tightly controls access to satellite broadcasts. But estimates are that there are perhaps 10,000 black- market satellite dishes island-wide.
"Now is the time to gear up and take action," says Stephen Johnson, a Cuba policy expert at the Heritage Foundation. He says the key to success at Radio and TV Martí is building credibility by offering reliable and useful information.
"What they need is information to help them realize that there are different ways of living out in the rest of the world, and that there are things they are missing out on," he says. "It is not to be anti-Castro, but to help plant seeds of change."
Professor Nichols says it won't work because no one in Cuba is listening. "The audience is the sender, not the receiver. The [attempted broadcasts] are making Cuba mad and the Cuban exile community happy," he says. "That is the real message."