Aid-to-Cuba progam caught in crossfire of criticism on island and in United States
Every morning in Coral Gables, workers gather on the top floor of a three-story building to do their part to fight Fidel Castro—filling white plastic bags with shampoo, toothpaste, medicines, vitamins, canned food, underwear and sandals.
The bags are shipped to families of Cuban dissidents imprisoned for alleged crimes against the Castro government.
‘‘This is the meat and potatoes of our work, what families of dissidents need to survive,’’ said Frank Hern�ndez Trujillo, executive director of Support Group for Democracy.
It is one of more than two dozen organizations, several of which are based in South Florida, that form the USAID Cuba Program, an ambitious U.S.-funded initiative to promote and bolster democratic movements on the communist island.
In recent weeks, the program has drawn a firestorm of criticism from Castro and other top Cuban officials who have denounced it as an orchestrated campaign by the Bush administration to subvert the island’s government.
The program, whose scope ranges from supporting human rights activists and independent journalists to producing post-communist plans for Cuba, has become ensnared in the recent tensions between the United States and Cuba, triggered by Castro’s severe crackdown on dissidents.
‘‘Today, the so-called dissidents, actually mercenaries on the payroll of the Bush Hitler-like government, are betraying not only their homeland but all of humanity as well,’’ Castro said at a May Day rally.
The program’s director says the U.S. government does not provide money to dissidents and is simply trying to help budding, but struggling and oppressed, democratic voices.
‘‘If discussing democracy and providing books written by Martin Luther King . . . and others is subversion, I don’t think by American standards that’s the case,’’ said Adolfo Franco, an assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development. “We are not doing anything subversive. It’s to support the growing civil society movement on the island.’‘
But some critics say the program is too narrowly focused on a relatively small dissident movement and should reach out to a broader spectrum of Cubans, and that many funded groups are dominated by Cuban exiles with conservative viewpoints.
‘‘We should express our support for a more open society, but we must not be involved in efforts to bring about a different system in Cuba,’’ said Wayne Smith, senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy and a former head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana. “That gets into regime change and away from a diplomatic role.’‘
But Franco said the recent wave of repression in Cuba shows that the program is making inroads in helping establish a more independent society.
‘‘The outrageous arrests and violations of human rights that have taken place in Cuba . . . in and of itself demonstrates that the program has had an impact in Cuba,’’ he said.
The Cuba program grew out of congressional measures passed in the 1990s to assist people and groups in Cuba working for nonviolent change. The first grant in 1996 was awarded to Freedom House, a human rights group in Washington, D.C, to ship books, videos and typewriters to dissidents.
Since then the number of groups and the amount of money allocated for the program have grown significantly. This year, the federal government is distributing $6 million to Cuba program organizations. Over the years, about $23 million has been allocated for the program.
Many groups are based in Washington, but several are in South Florida, including CubaNet, which publishes stories by dissident journalists; a Florida International University program to train Cuban reporters by mail; and a transition project at the University of Miami.
‘‘The goal is to prepare the Cuban people to understand the process of reconstruction in Cuba,’’ said Jaime Suchlicki, director of UM’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. ‘That’s why we are casting a wide net in academia to do research and provide the best thinkers, the best ideas and policy options. We are not laying down dictates to the people of Cuba and saying, `Here, this is what you must do.’ We are just giving them a menu of options from which they can pick and choose what they want to do.’‘
While the Cuba program funds a variety of groups, it is difficult to assess how effective it has been in carving out a democratic niche in Cuba. An independent evaluation three years ago noted that it is virtually impossible to gather data in Cuba’s closed society.
But the report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers did raise some concerns. The program, it said, has not done enough to encourage “solidarity or coalition building among human rights activists within Cuba. To the extent that the democratic opposition is splintered, it is vulnerable to repression, penetration and manipulation by Cuban government forces.’‘
While the report cautioned against drawing parallels to Eastern Europe, some of the methods used to encourage change there could be applied in Cuba as long as they are tailored to conditions there.
‘‘The AID Cuba program is a pivotal source in making sure that folks in Cuba have access to information, to disseminate their materials and access to computers, faxes and radios,’’ said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami. “Low-tech or high-tech, it’s an opportunity to discuss important topics such as democracy and liberty, freedom of expression, basic principles the United States holds firm.’’