Reuters reported on Sunday that Judy Gross wrote a letter to Raul Castro in August and apologized for her husband's work. The letter said:
To the extent his work may have offended you or your government, he and I are genuinely remorseful.
The New York Times followed the story and said the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, was was taking a less aggressive approach toward Cuba:
In an effort to win Mr. Gross’s release, administration officials and Congressional aides said Usaid had quietly changed the way it administers its programs in Cuba, shifting the focus from those intent on ‘regime change’ to those that support educational exchanges and the growth of small businesses.
Phil Peters, a former State Department official who writes the Cuban Triangle blog, said he wants to know more. He asked:
...why doesn’t the Obama Administration explain in public how it has put its own stamp on the program?
It is true that many details of USAID's work in Cuba have not been disclosed. One official told me that the U.S. government can't reveal all that it does to protect the dissidents it is trying to help.
I am working on a series of freelance stories about civil society in Cuba and U.S. government programs aimed at promoting democracy. The Pulitzer Center in Washington, D.C., helped finance my latest trip to Cuba. See details here.
I have been inquiring about USAID and other U.S. government programs that operate in Cuba. USAID today sent me a statement in response to my initial questions.
I welcome additional information, opinions and ideas from government employees on both sides of the Florida Straits, Cuban bloggers, exiles, dissidents, experts, scholars and others. Feel free to send in your thoughts about pro-democracy programs in Cuba.
The Q&A is below:
Eaton: Can you make any general statements about the status of U.S. pro-democracy programs in Cuba ? The arrest of Alan Gross had an impact on these programs, I understand. Have things gotten back to normal?
USAID: The U.S. Government continues to try to reach out and engage with the people of Cuba, as we do with most other countries in the world. Naturally, the arrest of Alan Gross, a dedicated international development worker, prompted a review of our ongoing efforts with Cuba . Such a process is part of a continuous/evolving effort to shape and refine our assistance programs to better reach the citizens of Cuba and develop closer links between our people and societies. We feel strongly that such interaction benefits both of our countries.
Eaton: Can you cite any success stories these programs have had over the past year or two?
USAID: As with all development efforts around the world, the most notable successes have resulted from concentrated efforts over a longer period. For example, we have trained hundreds of journalists over a ten year period whose work has appeared in major international news outlets. We have facilitated information sharing into and out of Cuba as well as within Cuba . In a place where communication is so limited, basic access to information is an important achievement. In addition, we have provided critical humanitarian assistance to political prisoners, their families, and other victims of repression.
The news of the death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo -- which inspired international outrage and condemnation of the human rights situation in Cuba -- was immediately disseminated outside of the island thanks, in part, to an increased ability to provide information out of Cuba .
Eaton: Have any of the goals or priorities changed since Barack Obama took office? I've read about the QDDR. I don't know what impact that has, if any, on Cuba programs, as I wrote here.
USAID: The QDDR is still underway and the results have not yet been finalized.
U.S. assistance to Cuba will continue to promote self-determined democracy in Cuba and greater communication with the people of Cuba. Funds will be used to provide humanitarian assistance to political prisoners, their families, and other victims of repression; advance human rights; strengthen independent civil society organizations; and support information sharing into and out of Cuba.
Eaton: My understanding is that the USAID is spending $15 million on pro-democracy programs this fiscal year. Can you say anything - specifically or generally - about where that money is going?
USAID: In fiscal year 2009, U.S. Government was appropriated $15.62 million for assistance programs on Cuba to provide humanitarian assistance to political prisoners, their families, and other victims of repression; advance human rights; strengthen independent civil society organizations; and support information sharing into and out of Cuba.
Eaton: How much of the money from, say, $15 million reaches the hands of dissidents, pro-democracy activists and other aid targets in Cuba?
USAID: The vast majority of this money is intended for individuals on the ground in Cuba. Our objective is to maximize the amount of support that benefits Cubans on the island. Since the $15.62 million in fiscal year 2009 funds has recently been programmed, it is too early to have a precise figure at this point, but the overall goal is to have the funds directly benefit Cubans on the island.
Eaton: Can you say anything about the challenges of trying to help dissidents in a country like Cuba, where dissident and human rights groups appear to be heavily infiltrated? Several dissident leaders I interviewed in Havana told me about state security agents who had moved in to apartments or homes right next door to them to keep tabs on them 24 hours a day.
USAID: It is sad and unfortunate that those with differing political perspectives and defenders of human rights are still being persecuted by their government. We admire their courage, however, and take all precautions possible to ensure that we don’t do anything that would further endanger the recipients of our foreign assistance programs or our implementing partners.
Eaton: How much input do targets of the aid have in how the pro-democracy funds are spent?
USAID: We draw on a wide range of experts to design our programs. We also work to carry out programs that are demand-driven and responsive to the needs of targeted beneficiaries.
Eaton: Some dissident leaders in Cuba have told reporters that they disagree with U.S. policy toward Cuba. Some of them say pro-democracy money only gives the Cuban government a pretext to arrest them. Others don't believe the U.S. government ought to be trying to influence internal matters in Cuba. Do U.S. officials take into account any of these views?
USAID: We acknowledge that there are varying views within Cuba and around the world regarding efforts to reach the Cuban people, and we certainly respect these differing views and take them into account. Clearly, no one is required to accept or take part in any USG programs if they don’t want to. There are many groups and individuals inside and outside Cuba who believe the funds are useful in supporting their ability to carry out their activities and promote fundamental freedoms -- freedoms, it should be noted, that are engendered in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and democratic norms throughout the world. Experience in Cuba and in other closed-societies shows that such programs play a positive role in empowering those who work towards positive change and the promotion of fundamental freedoms.