BY GARY MARX | Chicago Tribune
Far from the White House and Havana, in strip malls and nondescript buildings along South Florida’s sunlit streets, a multimillion-dollar infusion from the U.S. government has rejuvenated Cuban-American non-profit groups providing assistance to Cuba’s tiny opposition movement.
The groups’ ultimate goal, supported by the Bush administration, is to bring political change to Cuba and end the presidency of Fidel Castro, who has remained in power despite numerous assassination attempts and a four-decade U.S. trade embargo.
Some of what the groups send to the island doesn’t reach the dissidents they hope to help, and some of the groups’ leaders acknowledge that the extra $14 million the administration is sending their way this year - on top of the nearly $9 million that was appropriated - is unlikely to bring down the Cuban government.
But that hasn’t dimmed their enthusiasm for aiding what they describe as courageous opposition figures in Cuba, whom they view as Castro’s Achilles’ heel.
“We’ve sent medicines. We’ve sent clothing. We’ve sent cameras. We’ve sent office supplies,” said Frank Hernandez Trujillo, 63, executive director of Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia, a Coral Gables, Fla.-based group that since 2000 has received $4.7 million from the U.S. government’s Cuba program.
Hernandez said he began shipping supplies to Castro opponents in Cuba 10 years ago, working out of his living room with six friends. He financed the operation himself. But when U.S. funds became available in the mid-1990s, Hernandez began writing grant proposals and by 2003 had an annual budget of $1.3 million.
Hernandez said Cubans who speak out against the government lose their jobs or are imprisoned, citing the 75 opposition figures incarcerated during the Cuban government’s crackdown in 2003.
“We are literally keeping many dissidents and their families alive by providing them with materials,” he said. “The psychological impact is also important. They feel like they are not abandoned.”
In addition to providing dissidents everything from dried ramen soup to fax machines, Hernandez is producing books and CDs for underground distribution in Cuba.
His latest project is “GAD-TV,” a television interview program meant to counter the almost-uniformly negative Cuban government propaganda about the United States. The program is smuggled into Cuba on DVDs, though few Cubans have DVD players.
“We see the Cuban government as a piece of furniture that has been eaten away by termites,” he said. “If you put any kind of pressure on it, it will crumble. We are the termites.”
Five miles west of Hernandez’s office on Miami’s Calle Ocho is the single-room headquarters of Accion Democratica Cubana, another U.S.-financed group that provides mostly humanitarian assistance to Cuban dissidents.
Juan Carlos Acosta, the organization’s 46-year-old president, said he turned to the U.S. government for financing because he couldn’t raise money in South Florida, where some Cuban-Americans do not believe supporting dissidents is the most effective way to bring change to Cuba.
“We don’t have the support of our own community,” Acosta said. “We have powerful radio stations, and most of them have a hard-line vision based on the ideas of the 1950s and 1960s, namely that Cuba can only be free through arms.”
Acosta said he shared that view for years. A Mariel boat refugee in 1980, he said he trained in the Florida Everglades with Alpha 66, an exile commando group that prepared for an assault on the island.
But Acosta said that by the mid-1980s he began hearing about a small group of opposition leaders inside Cuba and decided supporting them was the way to end “the tyranny.”
In the first three months of 2004, Accion Democratica Cubana reported sending 1,464 pounds of relief packages to Cuba, along with four shortwave radios, two tripods, six cameras, three portable hard drives and other items, according to U.S. government documents.
In 2003, the group spent $113,116 on humanitarian aid and supplies out of nearly $350,000 in total expenses, according to its tax report. But Acosta spent about $220,000 on shipping, telephone, rent and contract services.
Acosta said the only way to effectively communicate with dissidents in Cuba is by phone, which can cost in excess of several dollars a minute. He also pays professional smugglers between $12 and $15 a pound to carry supplies into Cuba.
Other U.S.-funded groups face similar difficulties getting their product to the island.
Rosa Berre, a former reporter for the Cuban Communist Party daily Granma, fled Cuba with her journalist husband in 1980 and later helped start the Coral Gables-based Web site CubaNet, which publishes articles by Cuban freelance writers critical of Castro.
CubaNet has received about $1.7 million in U.S. funds since 1996. But its Web site is blocked in Cuba, so CubaNet articles are not available even for Cubans with access to the Internet.
To get around the problem, Berre sends copies of CubaNet stories by e-mail to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, the country’s diplomatic seat absent full relations, where they are printed and distributed along with other pro-democracy material to thousands of visitors.
In Cuba, many dissidents say the U.S. assistance is crucial yet complain that much of the help never reaches them.
“The U.S. government needs a way to have accountability for the money that is given to the exile groups,” said Manuel Vazquez Portal, a dissident journalist in Cuba.
Adolfo Franco, an assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said his agency closely monitors the program, which has spent about $36 million since its first grant in 1996. He described the effort - which also includes grants to universities and other organizations - as having an enormous impact in Cuba.
“If this were insignificant and not a threat to the regime, the regime would not waste a great deal of time denouncing these individuals, the United States government and the entire movement,” Franco said.
But a USAID-commissioned audit in 2000 by PricewaterhouseCoopers cast doubt on the agency’s ability to measure the effectiveness of the so-called pro-democracy efforts because of the closed nature of Cuban society.
Even when the assistance arrives on the island it is difficult to ensure that it is going to the intended recipients.
Resting on Joel Brito’s desk in Miami is a color photograph taken in Cuba of two smiling middle-aged women.
The woman in the foreground is Aleida Godinez Soler, a dissident labor leader and Brito’s primary contact in Cuba. Behind Godinez stood Alicia Zamora Labrada, a dissident writer specializing in labor issues.
As executive director of an exile labor group, Brito said he sent the two women about $9,000 in U.S. taxpayer money during a two-year period, along with medicines and other assistance.
Then, in 2003, the two women revealed themselves as Cuban government spies. “I talked to Godinez every day,” said Brito, 41. “I couldn’t believe it.”