By JUAN O. TAMAYO | Miami Herald
The U.S. government’s Cuba democracy programs are all but paralyzed, facing political, safety and bureaucratic hurdles that critics and backers agree could end up halting their more aggressive features.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which doles out much of the money, has not requested new funding proposals since March, and groups that run the programs complain they have little money left.
Powerful Democrats in Congress are vowing to block the more ``provocative’’ programs, and the Obama administration is hinting it may halt a key part of the programs that Cuba brands as ``subversive.’‘
``If this continues in the same way, the whole pro-democracy program is going to be dead,’’ said Frank Calzon, whose Center for a Free Cuba in suburban Washington stopped receiving U.S. funds last year.
Launched during the Clinton administration, the Cuba Democracy Assistance program was expanded under President George W. Bush and Congress in 2008 approved $40 million for the two-year period that ends Sept. 30.
The money goes to non-government organizations and private firms that in turn support dissidents, independent journalists and other peaceful civil society groups and deliver items like books, shortwave radios, computers satellite TV receivers and cellphones.
Some of program’s current problems are bureaucratic, several knowledgeable persons told El Nuevo Herald. Most requested anonymity and declined to comment on the U.S. funds their organizations receive, because of the political sensitivity of the issue.
USAID has been leaderless for the past year, they all agreed. Rajiv Shah, President Barack Obama’s pick to head the agency, was sworn in just this month. Elaine Grigsby, its veteran head of Cuba programs, moved to another post last year. And her replacement was quickly reassigned to Pakistan.
HIGH LEVEL SUPPORT
``Given its sensitive and political nature, the Cuba program needs . . . most importantly, high level support to push the bureaucracy,’’ said a former Bush administration official. But the bureaucrats’ ``default is to do as little as possible until they know what the White House and the political leadership want.’‘
USAID’s notice requesting new proposals for Cuba programs, initially expected in March, still has not been issued, said the head of a nonprofit that receives U.S. funds.
``We’re going to have to basically pack up and close,’’ said Frank Hernandez Trujillo of the Miami-based Grupo de Apoyo a la Disidencia when the last of his USAID money runs out March 31. The group received $6 million since 2005, he said.
And at the State Department, which also handles some of the Cuba funds, Obama appointee Arturo Valenzuela was not sworn in as deputy secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs until November.
The paralysis in the pro-democracy programs, said supporters, comes at a time when Cubans are expressing increasing frustration with the economy and political controls.
``This is the worst possible time for the funds to be frozen, because the civil society movement in Cuba is giving clear signals it is awake,’’ said Orlando Gutierrez of the Cuban Democratic Directorate in Miami.
Cuban authorities threw the programs into further turmoil Dec. 4, when they arrested USAID subcontractor Alan Gross in Havana. Gross, who remains jail, had been reportedly helping Jewish groups on the island gain ``unfiltered’’ access to the Internet.
Gross’ arrest highlighted the more aggressive and risky aspects of the U.S. programs—the Cuban government makes it a crime to receive U.S. assistance and tightly controls communications equipment—and sparked speculation that Havana will keep him in prison until Washington puts a stop to at least some of the programs.
The arrest already led USAID and the State Department to clamp down on such travel by U.S. contractors and subcontractors, one of the key ways in which goods have been slipped into the island in recent years.
On Dec. 28, the State Department’s Cuba desk sent out an e-mail ``to re-emphasize our recommendation to temporarily defer travel to the island until further notice,’’ according to a copy obtained by El Nuevo Herald. The e-mail, said recipients, amounted to a stop-travel order.
Florida Republican Sen. George LeMieux said he met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Rajiv Shah last month and won their promise to move quickly on the stalled Cuba funds.