By Gary Marx
The Bush administration’s plans to send an additional $80 million over the next two years to support Cuba’s struggling opposition movement is being criticized by the very people the money is intended to help.
While some dissidents applaud the increase, many opposition leaders say the decade-old program is ill-conceived, poorly managed and has failed to weaken President Fidel Castro’s grip on power.
Since the program began in 1996, the U.S. has allocated more than $50 million to supply opposition activists everything from food to laptop computers. The money also has been used to train Cuba’s independent journalists, bankroll Web sites and magazines critical of the Castro government, and fund seminars and academic studies related to Cuba.
Earlier this month, U.S. officials announced they would spend an additional $80 million over the next two years to continue the effort, which they described in a 93-page report as having strengthened Cuba’s internal opposition.
But critics such as Elizardo Sanchez, an activist who heads the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation in Havana, described the increased support as “counterproductive” and said authorities already are using the July 10 announcement to harass the dissidents.
“This is putting gasoline on the fire,” he said. “This is fuel for the Cuban government’s propaganda.”
Sanchez said the U.S. aid program is characterized by “a lot of inconvenient rhetoric from Washington and few practical results.”
Vladimiro Roca, another prominent opposition leader, complained that only a small fraction of the assistance actually reaches the dissident community.
“What arrives here to us is very limited,” Roca said. “Fundamental things have to change.”
One initiative cited by Sanchez and others as ill-conceived is the Georgetown University Scholarship Program, which received a $400,000 grant to provide family and friends of dissidents two years of study at U.S. community colleges.
The idea was for young Cubans to experience life in a democracy and then take their new knowledge and affinity for democracy home to Cuba.
In 2003, Georgetown selected 20 students out of 400 applicants. Castro wouldn’t allow them to participate.
The Cuban leader has long denounced U.S. government-funded programs as violations of Cuban sovereignty.
“(President Bush) shouldn’t even think that we would cooperate with a plan aimed at ... (training) agents of subversion and destabilization to serve his interventionist and imperial ends,” Castro said.
Only one of the 20 students has managed to leave Cuba to begin studies. The students left behind are frustrated and disappointed.
“I was so happy when I was chosen,” said Flavia Ribot, 21, as she proudly displayed her acceptance letter to Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wis. “I thought it was a great opportunity.”
Despite the program’s failure, U.S. officials are allocating $10 million of the additional $80 million to fund more scholarships for Cubans to study abroad.
The plan also calls for more funding for “on-island university training from third countries,” even though Cuban authorities closely track U.S. assistance and have expelled foreigners associated with such programs, according to interviews and U.S. government documents.
One U.S.-funded project begun in 2000 called for Cuban farmers associated with the opposition to travel abroad for technical training while volunteer experts would visit Cuba to provide additional assistance.
But Cuban authorities deported the first volunteer to fly into Havana and would not allow the Cuban farmers to leave the country. The project, run by the Washington non-profit ACDI/VOCA, fizzled.
“We put to rest any notions of trying to send volunteers to the island or bring ... leaders out for overseas technical visits,” the non-profit reported a year later. “These activities were found to be unviable.”
The U.S. Agency for International Development, which manages most of the U.S. government money aimed at supporting political change in Cuba, declined to comment. In the past, agency officials have described its Cuba program as well-managed and effective.
Caleb McCarry, Bush’s top adviser for Cuba, said recently that the additional $80 million will help “empower and support Cubans as they lead the way toward a democratic transition in their country.”
Asked why the U.S. is expanding a scholarship program for Cubans that has been paralyzed, McCarry responded, “This is a serious offer to support young Cubans, economically disadvantaged Cubans.”
But Jorge Olivera, a dissident journalist in Havana, said it is “impossible to think that they can implement this program. It’s an illusion.”
Because of Castro’s opposition, USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit funded primarily by the U.S. Congress, have no presence on the island and channel taxpayer money primarily through U.S.-based groups.
USAID officials say their policy prohibits the agency and its grant recipients from sending cash to individuals or groups on the island, though the National Endowment for Democracy has provided money to dissidents through non-profits.
Much of the U.S. assistance goes to Cuban-American organizations in South Florida. There, food, clothing, medicine, shortwave radios, digital cameras and other items are stockpiled, packed into duffel bags and carried by volunteers or professional smugglers into Cuba for distribution.
The overhead costs of such an operation can be high.
One non-profit funded by USAID, Accion Democratica Cubana, spent only $88,059 on humanitarian aid out of $366,758 in total expenses, according to its 2004 tax report.
Juan Carlos Acosta, the group’s executive director, attributed the high overhead to the price of telephone calls to Cuba, which can cost up to $1.20 a minute but are the best way to communicate with Cuban opposition leaders.
He said the group also is hiring more professional smugglers because tightened travel restrictions put in place by the Bush administration mean there are fewer volunteers traveling to Cuba. Acosta spent about $120,000 on smugglers and other shipping costs in 2004, records show.
While Cuban authorities intercept some of the aid, most items slip through and end up in the hands of people such as Laura Pollan, wife of imprisoned activist Hector Maseda.
Pollan said one U.S.-backed group, Plantados, provides $50 a month to the families of political prisoners. The money enables Pollan to supplement her husband’s meager prison diet with milk, cheese and coffee.
Another U.S.-backed non-profit, Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia, or GAD, provides imprisoned activists sandals, mosquito netting, soap and vitamins as well as food and other items.
GAD even sent Pollan’s husband a new set of bifocals when his glasses broke 18 months ago.
“Without this help we’d have a lot of problems,” said Pollan, 58. “I don’t work. Imagine it. Life would be extremely difficult.”
For his part, Roca has received a laptop computer from GAD. Acosta supplied him a scanner and printer, along with medicine for an enlarged prostate gland and other aliments.
But while Roca expressed gratitude, he said that not enough assistance has reached the island to strengthen the opposition movement, which still is reeling from Cuban authorities’ decision to imprison 75 activists in 2003.
Roca said USAID should eliminate its prohibition on sending cash to the Cuban opposition to ensure that more aid reaches the island rather than being gobbled up by U.S.-based groups.
Others suggest the U.S. should cut back on the millions of tax dollars spent on academic studies and conferences in Miami and elsewhere and instead improve the delivery of humanitarian supplies.
“We need more food and medicine,” Olivera said. “We are being suffocated.”