By Gary Marx | Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent
In a move likely to further aggravate tensions between Cuba and the United States, the U.S. government is offering millions of dollars to American universities and other groups under a program aimed at ending Cuba’s one-party rule.
Many schools traditionally have avoided the political battle between Washington and Havana. But that is beginning to change.
Chicago’s Loyola University last fall became one of several universities to accept such a grant, $425,000, which university officials say will be used to continue a program that teaches English to adults in a poor Havana neighborhood.
Similar programs are conducted in many countries with little fanfare. But in Cuba, even a modest and benign educational program like Loyola’s garners scrutiny because it is being financed by the U.S. government at a time when relations between the two nations are at their lowest point in years.
U.S. officials argue the money that funds such programs is crucial to building political opposition to President Fidel Castro on the island and preparing for what they describe as Cuba’s inevitable transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Critics say the programs have failed to bolster Cuba’s weak and divided dissident community and instead only endanger those who participate in them.
“The impact of the U.S. program in Cuba has been insubstantial,” said Geoff Thale, senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank. “It just gets whoever receives the assistance in Cuba in trouble with Cuban authorities and has done little to broaden the political opening.”
But Daniel Fisk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said the Bush administration’s efforts—including the educational funding and the tightening of a 40-year-old trade embargo—are “speeding the day” when freedom will come to Cuba.
“The regime is feeling pressure like it has not felt pressure in at least two decades in terms of actions from the United States,” Fisk said. “The U.S. stands for something more than business as usual. We have a pro-active strategy to help the Cuban people be able to decide their own destiny.”
The long-standing debate over the U.S. government’s Cuba transition effort is intensifying as officials solicit proposals for up to $29 million in projects envisioned by President Bush’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba.
Part of the effort includes the overtures to educational institutions.
Maeve Kiley, a Loyola spokeswoman, said the $425,000 grant will be used for an English program the school has maintained in Havana for several years. She said the university has similar “non-political and non-religious” programs throughout the world.
“It is not used to work with any organizations in Cuba that are part of the Cuban government, nor organizations that are actively working in opposition to the Cuban government,” Kiley wrote in an e-mail.
Loyola officials declined to comment further on the grant, including explaining why the university decided to accept the funding.
Some critics say the fact that Loyola is accepting money from the Bush administration may wind up hurting a summer program that has helped dozens of Cubans improve their English.
Cuban authorities denounce any U.S. government-funded program as an effort to undermine their government, and Cubans who participate are subject to a lengthy prison sentence.
Cuban officials declined to comment about Loyola’s program, but Wayne Smith, a former top American diplomat in Havana, said he doubted the university’s efforts would be tolerated.
“The U.S. objective is to bring down the Cuban government, and they [Loyola] would be part of that no matter how benign it seems,” Smith said.
Since 1996, the U.S. government has allocated more than $42 million to support projects ranging from academic studies analyzing the challenges presented by a post-Castro Cuba to funding a Web site that posts articles written by the island’s independent journalists.
Most of the funds are channeled through the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Thale of the Washington think tank and other critics say it is impossible to verify how much U.S. support is actually reaching the island because neither American officials nor the non-governmental organizations can travel freely in Cuba to conduct audits.
Fisk said the funding drive is targeting institutions that have experience in democratic change. American officials also are reaching out specifically to Catholic universities.
Rev. Charles Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, a Washington group representing 28 schools including Loyola, said a top USAID official asked him to speak to presidents of his member institutions about participating in the grant program.
Currie said he declined because he did not want the universities drawn into the fight against Castro.
Officials at the University of Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies said they did not apply for a grant because it could jeopardize the institute’s academic research in Cuba and its ties to the Cuban Catholic Church, one of the nation’s few independent organizations.
One senior U.S. State Department official acknowledged the challenges of working in Cuba but applauded Loyola’s willingness to take the risk. He said it was important for Cubans to learn English to break through the Castro government’s information blockade and increase their knowledge about capitalism and democracy.
In recent years, a group of Loyola students has traveled each summer to Havana to teach English to adults at the Centro LaSalle, a Catholic community center. The students, who last year paid $2,500 apiece for the 2 1/2-week trip, teach about 16 hours of English at the center, according to Loyola’s Web site.
Misael Quinones, coordinator of the Centro LaSalle, said about 70 Cubans participate in Loyola’s workshops annually. Quinones said he was unaware that Loyola had obtained U.S. government funding for the program, which he said will have to be re-evaluated.
“This has not been approved by our institution,” he said. “I want to make clear that up to now there has been nothing political about the program.”
One of the other university-based groups to accept USAID money to work in Cuba is the Mississippi Consortium for International Development, affiliated with Jackson State University and three other historically black colleges.
Ally Mack, the institute’s executive director, said the $400,000 grant provides leadership training in Cuban cities.
Mack said the USAID-funded program is apolitical but refused to provide details because she is concerned about the safety of Cubans participating in it.