BY GARY MARX | Chicago Tribune
As part of a broad strategy to spur political change in Cuba, the U.S. government has been quietly sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to activists seeking to undermine President Fidel Castro’s one-party state, according to documents and interviews.
The cash assistance is being channeled through the U.S.-financed National Endowment for Democracy and pays more than two dozen freelance writers for a Miami-based Web site that posts articles critical of the Cuban government.
The cash also supports opposition figures, human-rights activists, political prisoners and their families, including those prisoners jailed in 2003 during the government’s crackdown on dissidents.
Supporters argue the cash payments, totaling about $200,000 a year, help keep opposition alive in a country where most dissidents are fired from their jobs and ostracized.
The cash payments comprise only a small part of President Bush’s intensified campaign to squeeze the Castro regime through the tightening of trade sanctions and increased material support for opposition activists.
Yet even some supporters of Bush’s approach say that providing cash to dissidents gives ammunition to Cuban officials who denounce the opposition as “mercenaries” for the United States.
Critics believe the payments also endanger the dissidents, who face up to 20 years in prison if they participate in any U.S. government-funded program.
“Providing funding to dissidents at a time when the U.S. government says that its objective is to bring down the Cuban government is to turn the dissidents into subversive agents,” said Wayne Smith, a former U.S. diplomat in Cuba. “It’s a colossal mistake.”
Christopher Sabatini, NED’s director for Latin America and the Caribbean, argued the payouts to Cubans reflect the organization’s support for democracy in many nations.
He said the group’s efforts are aimed at promoting “a peaceful, eventual transition in Cuba.”
“This is not about regime change,” Sabatini said. “It’s about helping independent, courageous individuals organize, have a voice, create political space and ensure that, when there is a transition, democratic institutions and actors are prepared.”
Elizardo Sanchez, an activist who heads the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation in Havana, said his organization would not accept funds from the U.S. government because it could compromise the commission’s independence and open it to further attacks by Cuban officials.
But Sanchez said he saw nothing wrong with U.S. funds paying freelancers for their work or supporting activists, political prisoners and their families.
“The function of the NED is to promote democracy in the world,” he said.
Cuban officials could not be reached for comment, but they have long denounced U.S. government-funded programs as violations of Cuban sovereignty.
Some of the 75 dissidents imprisoned in 2003 were charged with accepting cash and other support from the U.S. government.
Cuban authorities track the aid closely, sometimes infiltrating the U.S.-funded programs in an effort to monitor, disrupt and control opposition activities, according to activists on the island.
NED already is embroiled in a dispute over its alleged support for groups opposed to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fiery populist increasingly at odds with the United States.
During the run-up to last year’s presidential recall referendum in Venezuela, Chavez charged that NED-financed groups were conspiring with the Bush administration to defeat him. Chavez survived the referendum easily.
The debate over U.S. efforts in Cuba is intensifying in Washington and Havana as officials solicit proposals for up to $29 million in projects envisioned by the President’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba.
Since the passage in 1996 of the Helms-Burton act, the vast majority of funding to support political change in Cuba has been managed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has distributed more than $35 million in funds related to Cuba since 1996.
The USAID assistance has primarily gone to U.S.-based groups for projects ranging from producing and sending pro-democracy literature to Cuba to providing computers, fax machines and other equipment to Cuba’s dissident journalists.
USAID officials say their policy prohibits the agency and its grant recipients from sending cash to individuals or groups on the island.
“This would play into the hands of the Castro regime saying these are paid agents,” said Adolfo Franco, USAID’s assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean.
But the decision to prohibit cash payments to the Cuban opposition does not apply to the NED, which describes itself as a private, non-profit group but is funded largely by the U.S. Congress. The NED was founded in 1983 to provide support for promoting democracy overseas.
Since 2000, the NED has allocated about $4.9 million to its Cuba program, financing about a dozen groups annually.
One recipient is the Madrid-based journal Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana, which publishes the work of Cuban writers on cultural and political issues.
Another major recipient is the Cuban Democratic Directorate, an anti-Castro group based in Hialeah, Fla., that charts dissident activities and human rights violations on the island.
Sabatini said about 20 percent of the NED’s assistance to Cuba reaches the island in cash, primarily to support the work, training and travel of activists.
The NED’s Cuba budget is scheduled to double in the next fiscal year to about $2 million.
Two of the primary Cuba-related groups handling the NED’s cash payments are CubaNet ( [url=http://www.cubanet.org]http://www.cubanet.org[/url] ), a Florida-based Web site that publishes the work of freelancers, and the Center for a Free Cuba ( [url=http://www.cubacenter.org]http://www.cubacenter.org[/url] ), a Washington group led by anti-Castro activist Frank Calzon.
The two groups also receive USAID funding. Calzon’s organization has taken in more than $5 million in recent years and CubaNet more than $1.3 million, according to USAID figures.
Rosa Berre, director of CubaNet, said the agency sends about $3,000 a month in NED funds to Cuba to pay freelance writers and activists for articles.
“It’s valid to work for money. This is what people do,” Berre said. Nine of her freelancers in Cuba were imprisoned in the 2003 crackdown, and two others revealed themselves as spies for Cuban intelligence in testimony against those arrested.
Several of the writers have since been released.
“As long as they are willing to take the risk, we are here to help them,” she said.