BY PABLO BACHELET | Miami Herald
The Bush administration is undertaking a major do-over of the controversial Cuba democracy grants, restricting the funds available for anti-Castro groups in Miami and sending more resources to non-U.S. international advocacy organizations, officials and others familiar with the programs say.
The new orientation, which has sent tremors of uncertainty among many grant recipients in South Florida, comes as the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development prepare to award a record $45.7 million in Cuba democracy grants this year—more than triple the 2007 levels.
The money aims to bring about a transition to democracy in Cuba, but the programs have long faced allegations they favor more Cuban Americans in Miami than people on the island. On Friday, a White House aide resigned amid allegations of misusing program money when he worked for one of the Cuban-American groups.
The funds are to be awarded via competitive bids and officials are urging Eastern European and Latin American groups to apply. The administration is especially eager for proposals that would provide communications technologies to activists in Cuba. Officials say Internet access, YouTube videos and cellphone text messages propelled movements to challenge governments in places like Tibet and Burma.
Access to these technologies is restricted by the communist government, although on Friday, Havana announced cellphones would be made more widely available. Earlier, the government has also said computers would be sold to all Cubans.
‘‘We are not . . . excluding anybody from the process,’’ said José Cárdenas, the deputy assistant administrator for South America and Cuba at USAID, ``but with the tremendously escalated resources, definitely we want new participants in the program.
‘‘We would love to see more former East European bloc groups and individuals,’’ he added, ``and we would love to see more private interest and activity from Latin America.’‘
Until now, the bulk of the grants have been funnelled through Miami groups. Critics said the programs placated Cuban-American groups but did little to bring democracy to Cuba. Havana routinely calls Cuban recipients of U.S. aid programs ``mercenaries of the empire.’‘
A November 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office criticized USAID for providing $74 million in grants since 1996 without competitive bids. The GAO also found some instances of abuse, including using grant money to purchase game consoles and cashmere sweaters.
And on Friday, the White House announced Felipe Sixto, its top liaison with the Cuban-American community, resigned over allegations he may have improperly obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money at a previous job with the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba.
But supporters of the programs say the GAO report also found programs delivered vast quantities of communications equipment and other supplies to dissidents on the island. The increase in resources for Cuban democracy grants was easily approved by Congress last year.
Officials say Miami-based organizations will now need to show they can provide training, equipment and other resources to groups on the island. ‘‘We want to see an impact in Cuba not somewhere in the United States,’’ said one official who helped craft the new guidelines and agreed to speak candidly provided he was not quoted by name.
The goal is to empower Cubans to operate independently of the communist system, which controls everything from access to the mass media to jobs. With Fidel Castro retired, his brother and successor Raúl Castro has taken some timid steps toward debate and reforms, though Cárdenas said the country was still ‘‘tightly controlled’’ by the government.
U.S. officials say Washington-based advocacy organizations like Freedom House, International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) will also be favored by the new guidelines because they have longstanding links with foreign pro-democracy groups.
Some money already has been provided to groups like the Czech advocacy group People In Need.
European and Latin American activists have an easier time entering Cuba than U.S. citizens.
Paul Fagan, the head of IRI’s Latin American programs, says his group often uses Latin Americans to conduct training seminars for Cuban activists, and is looking to set up Cuba programs with Baltic states like Latvia.
According to 2008 State Department budget documents, $33.7 million is to support civil society groups in Cuba, $5 million will support ‘‘rule of law and human rights’’ and $7 million is for ``political competition and consensus-building.’‘
The change in orientation has caused uncertainty among grant recipients in Miami, especially among academic programs that do not deal directly with civil society groups in Cuba.
Jaime Suchlicki says he will keep running his Cuba Transition Project, a unit of the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, regardless of what the U.S. government does.
‘‘CTP is not going to end, whether we get funding or not,’’ said Suchlicki, a historian and longtime head of the institute.
USAID provided $500,000 annually to fund seven researchers focusing on a post-Castro Cuba. Late last year, USAID said the program would not be renewed, though Suchlicki plans to reapply for a grant this year.
Frank Calzón, the head of the Center for a Free Cuba, said his USAID program ended recently but he had enough funds to keep going until the guidelines become clear. The center provides assistance and equipment to dissidents on the island, and works with international human rights organizations and foreign governments to raise awareness on abuses in Cuba.
Calzón said programs are evolving over time.
‘‘There are other tools, there are other instruments,’’ he said. ``Now, there are people in Europe, in Latin America who want to help the Cuban people by sending books, by going to the island.’’