Friday, June 3, 2011

Exclusive: State Department responds to Sen. Kerry's questions about USAID in Cuba

On April 1, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., announced that he was holding up $20 million in funds for democracy programs in Cuba because he had questions and concerns about USAID activities in Cuba.
The State Department's answers to Kerry's questions are below. The State Department declined to provide all of the information that the senator requested. Even so, my sense is that this kind of information contributes toward a greater understanding of these programs. That is in the public interest and boosts the transparency surrounding these programs.

State Department Responses to Chairman Kerry Questions Regarding CN 11-050

1) The CN as currently drafted provides insufficient information on program participation, content and execution. Please provide the Committee with a list of specific contractors and sub-contractors and a detailed description of how each identified objective will be achieved.

The FY 2010 foreign assistance funds for Cuba were notified consistent with the State Department’s format for country notifications worldwide. Implementers for funds marked “TBD” will be selected via full and open merit-based competition that solicits proposals addressing each particular program topic.
We support a wide range of activities on the island that strengthen civil society groups, raise awareness about human rights issues, and increase the free flow of information to, from and on the island of Cuba. We also provide humanitarian assistance, including food stuffs and medicines, to political prisoners and their families. Our programs respond to the interests and needs of Cuban groups and individuals. Despite the restrictions placed upon them by their own government, Cuban citizens continue to ask for more technical and material support to increase their ability to network and communicate with each other.

2) State and AID stated last year that the CN under discussion at the time (FY09 CN) was “transitional” and reflected the beginning of an evolution of program content to reflect Obama Administration policies and priorities. Please identify the points in the new (FY10) CN that reflect a “transition” in either policy, program content, or policy implementation.

In her July 2010 speech at the Community of Democracies Forum in Krakow, Secretary Clinton pointed to civil society as a key partner not only in the advancement of human rights and fundamental freedoms, but also for overall political and economic progress. Our Cuba programs seek to empower organizations to transform shared interests into common actions, enabling them to freely determine their own future.
Based on consultations with Congressional staff, we continue to look for new areas for programming that furthers the Administration's foreign policy goals for Cuba. The FY10 CN includes new programmatic ideas, such as including LGBT groups and addressing disability rights, as well as programs to mediate conflict. In addition, we are shifting greater emphasis to directly support Cubans on the island as opposed to activities involving people outside of Cuba. This focus on the island supports our efforts to reach broader segments of the Cuban population, while deepening the direct impact of the programs.
The FY10 CN includes program themes addressed in previous CNs, such as access to uncensored information, documentation of human rights abuses, and capacity building for groups to organize around a particular issue of their choosing. We are seeking to engage with the broadest swath of Cuban civil society, including groups that with whom we have not worked in the past. Given the increased use of technology to communicate and organize on the island, we see technology as areas of opportunity for further progress, using best practices and lessons learned from previous programming. Given the State Department’s assessment of restrictions on freedom of expression in Cuba, we believe this area to be one of particular opportunity in Cuba, as it has proven to be effective around the world.

3) State Department representatives have briefed Committee Staff regarding the severe budget constraints imposed on Latin American programs. Please provide the Committee a complete list of programs for which State and USAID requested funding in Latin America that have suffered cutbacks or suspension while the Cuba “democracy promotion” funding was restored from the FY09 level of $15 million to the proposed FY10 level of $20 million. Please indicate how these priorities were arrived at during the budget crunch.

The FY 2010 level for Cuba foreign assistance is consistent with the FY 2010 Appropriations Act (PL 111-117) Statement of Managers. State and USAID anticipate that they will be able to solicit proposals to compete the requested amount allocated for FY10 should Congress release the funds by June 1.
The Administration’s 2012 request for U.S. foreign assistance, including the Western Hemisphere, is contained in the 2012 Congressional Budget Justification, which details requested funds by country and by program, as well as prior year comparison levels. U.S assistance to the Western Hemisphere, including as described via the CBJ request, supports overall U.S. policy goals for the region: expanded social and economic opportunity; citizen safety for all; effective democratic governance; and a clean energy future. The FY 2012 CBJ Western Hemisphere Overview, pages 710-715, further details how U.S. foreign assistance programs support these regional policy priorities.

4) During the discussions last year, State and AID stated that the ongoing dialogue with Committee staff provided a solid foundation for consultations on the new (FY10) CN. This point was reiterated when the new Assistant Administrator for LAC assumed his position. Why did consultations not take place?

Prior to final approval of the FY09 CN, the Administration engaged in extensive conversations with Members of Congress and staff. In the lead-up to the FY10 CN, the Administration held over a dozen discussions with Members and staff in both parties and in both Chambers regarding the direction of the programs. In addition, there have been numerous telephone and in-person consultations between USAID and State Department representatives and the four primary committees of jurisdiction in Congress.
USAID and the State Department. We have also taken several steps to ensure that partners are aware of the security risks of operating in Cuba.
Congress will continue to have a voice in Cuba programs, as they do in all foreign assistance programs, and we see its contributions as integral to achieving U.S. foreign policy objectives.

5) Cuban media and other reports claim that the “Section 109” programs are heavily penetrated and influenced by Cuban counterintelligence and that at least some previously trusted contacts and aid recipients were in fact Cuban intelligence officers. The reports also compromised the existence of at least one front organization for operations directed from a Central American country. Please provide the Committee with a thorough assessment of the damage caused by these alleged penetrations of the programs, or, if warranted, a certification that no aspect of the programs has been compromised. In the damage assessment, please include any conclusions reached in the investigation regarding the value and effectiveness of the clandestine tradecraft, including the use of “mules” to transport materials and covert communications, used by contractors and grantees, and sub-contractors and sub-grantees. If clandestine tradecraft is indeed necessary for executing the programs, then why are the operations not better conducted by the intelligence community? In addition, please identify all steps that State and AID have taken to prevent more taxpayer funds and cash-value goods and services from reaching the Cuban intelligence services. If necessary to fully respond to this question, please submit to classified annex.

The Administration’s democracy programs in Cuba are carried out in a discreet manner to ensure the greatest possible safety of all those involved. These programs are comparable to what we and other donors do to support democracy and human rights in repressive societies all over the world.
Possible counterintelligence penetration is a known risk in Cuba. Those who carry out our assistance are aware of such risks. Nevertheless, participation by Cubans in current programs remains active, and we continue to receive requests for additional assistance. For example, USINT’s material donation program, and other programs carried out in an intentionally transparent manner, have not seen a major, negative impact on participation as a result of alleged counterintelligence penetration and continue to be oversubscribed.
Because the Cuban government arbitrarily arrests and detains citizens who try to exercise basic freedoms, U.S. assistance programs in Cuba are carried out discreetly. Unfortunately, given these circumstances, we are not always able to publicly convey the details and impact of our programs.
We continue to improve management and oversight in order to ensure the proper use of taxpayers’ resources. For example, USAID hired an accounting firm to provide Financial Compliance Reviews of all recipients of USAID funds for Cuba programs. These reviews are similar to a full audit, and in many ways are more detailed. These reviews help to ensure that resources provided to our implementing partners are being used for the purposes intended through detailed examination of procurement practices, expenditures, as well as compliance with applicable regulations. This firm has reviewed all USAID Cuba programs.

6) During discussions last year, State and AID representatives provided a series of assurances – in the form of “explanations and clarifications” – regarding how the FY09 and subsequent CNs would be implemented. Those assurances relating to increased oversight were formalized in an exchange between the Chairman and the Secretary. Please provide a detailed rundown of each step taken to improve oversight. Please list which steps have not been implemented and explain why.

In its 2006 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted weaknesses in the awarding and oversight of Cuba grants, while also acknowledging the challenging operating environment in which these programs operate. In the subsequent 2008 audit, the GAO recommended that a number of steps should have been taken to address previously identified concerns with the Cuba programs. In addition to those steps, USAID and State have continued to improve oversight measures. We hold weekly, working-level inter-agency meetings to facilitate discussion on management, administrative, and programmatic issues. On a quarterly basis, USAID hosts a daylong meeting for all State and USAID partners implementing Cuba programs. These meetings address issues that partners raise and facilitate information exchange, ensuring that all partners receive the same information. In addition, day-long, twice-yearly coordination meetings are conducted with State and USAID officials to discuss program activities in greater detail in order to avoid programmatic overlaps. To further ensure transparency and the best value of taxpayers’ resources, USAID and DRL award programs through full and open competition. The solicitations are posted on www.grants.gov, among other sites, to facilitate broad distribution of these opportunities. The selection criteria are posted with the online solicitations so that potential bidders understand the criteria on which their proposals will be evaluated, and the selection committees are staffed by USAID and State officials who have extensive experience and knowledge on Cuba.
[we already said this further up]
In addition to these steps, each grantor has taken additional measures to improve oversight. For example, USAID’s Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) Bureau forms Technical Review Committees to review proposed sub-awards not included in the original award. The committee’s recommendations are reviewed by the LAC Deputy Assistant Administrator. Also, during the last two quarterly partners meetings, USAID requested from recipients more detailed information to ensure that on-island beneficiaries do not receive the same resources from multiple USAID partners. DRL continues its worldwide practice of including language in its solicitations and awards referencing the grantees’ obligation to provide, if requested by State, any programmatic and/or financial information requested during the grant period.
Lastly, as stated above, USAID has hired an accounting firm to provide Financial Compliance Reviews of all recipients of USAID funds for Cuba programs. These reviews are similar to a full audit, and in many ways are more detailed. These reviews help to ensure that resources provided to our implementing partners are being used for the purposes intended through detailed examination of procurement practices, expenditures, as well as compliance with applicable regulations. This firm has reviewed all USAID Cuba programs.

7) A number of the assurances relating to the content and approach to various programs were also agreed to verbally during discussions on the FY09 CN. Understanding that some of the ideas required further research and input, and were therefore subject to some adjustment, please describe those adjustments which have been made and which have not, and please explain why the latter were not implemented. Some examples: Why are funds to mobilize protests still listed under “humanitarian” assistance? Why do contractors and grantees still seek to smuggle locally available goods into Cuba, at great personal risk and additional expense? Why are programs focused only on providing assistance for political organizing and political activities and, conversely, why are they proscribed from helping Cubans take advantage of newly available economic opportunities or other educational purposes?

U.S. foreign assistance to Cuba is not used to mobilize protests. With regard to the procurement of materials, we encourage grantees to make every effort to do so on the island to minimize shipping costs.
These programs were conceptualized through intense consultation with Congress and USINT, and feedback from our implementers and other interested stakeholders. Drawing on this feedback, we designed these new programs to strengthen direct engagement with the Cuban people and provide support for grassroots initiatives. Program activities include helping to promote the flow of information to, from and within Cuba; the development of civil society; and humanitarian support for political prisoners and their families.
We will also be targeting new sectors of traditionally marginalized civil society that were not included in previous programs to empower them and build their capacity. These include: Cubans with disabilities, the LGBT community, and those who have been sexually exploited. Programs also provide for dissemination of information about market economies and help foster a better understanding of free markets and related rights, such as freedom of expression and association.
Under the regulations announced by this Administration, increased remittance flows will allow the Cuban people to reduce their dependence on the Cuban state and provide for increased independent economic activity.

8) The Committee Staff again requests comparisons between the funding, substance and modus operandi of the Cuba “democracy promotion” program and those undertaken in other countries. Please include, inter alia, the following: A statement of the bilateral context in each relationship, including the existence (or not) of diplomatic relations, embargoes, travel bans by either side, hostilities, arrests of U.S. citizens, host government notification, intelligence service operational capacity, relations with civil society, and host government local legislation endangering the participation of local participants; a statement of the level of clandestineness and disclosure of the contractor/grantees’ and subcontractor/sub-grantees’ activities in each country; and a summary of policies and practices regarding the training in and use of covert communications techniques such the use of secret codes, steganography, and aliases by contractors/grantees and subcontractors/sub-grantees. In the specific case of Cuba, please explain as well why recipients of U.S. aid under these programs are often not told that it is U.S. assistance provided for the purposes outlined in Section 109.

Globally, in countries such as Belarus, Burma, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Zimbabwe, the U.S. Government responds to autocratic challenges by providing training, materials, and internet and radio platforms and organizational support for civic groups, networks and the media. Support for universal values is a cornerstone of the National Security Strategy of the United States. Those values include the rights of people to speak their mind, assemble without fear, and have a say in how they are governed.
In our solicitations’ selection criteria, we place an emphasis on prior experience, at both the organizational and personnel level, in working in closed societies. We have found that prior experience in similar environments facilitates implementation since there is an understanding of the unique challenges likely to be encountered. We instruct our partners to tell Cuban recipients the source of the assistance when asked.
While seeking to advance and defend universal human rights principles, the USG develops and implements its democracy and governance strategies and program interventions according to the country’s current democratic state, justice system institutions, human rights conditions, quality of governance, and other situational factors, while taking into account each country’s unique history and culture. Still, within broad country categories there is consistency to our strategic approach.
In authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states, the major challenges facing the USG are how to create and maintain political and civic space in the face of a hostile regime that is prepared to use state resources to prevent criticism and meaningful reform. The strategy in these countries is to strengthen democracy and human rights activists outside government by working with democracy and human rights NGOs, watchdog groups, and independent media that are committed to democratic principles and value fundamental freedoms. Ensuring citizens’ access to independent information sources is critical in these environments. When possible, the USG supports pockets of reform within government institutions, such as within the judicial branch, independent electoral or anti-corruption commissions, and/or local governments. The primary strategic focus of USG democracy and governance assistance in these countries is in the areas of human rights and civil society, especially independent media.
Within the foreign assistance domain, our top priority in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states is invigorating an engaged and dynamic civil society, in particular journalists who represent the voice of civil society, and traditionally marginalized groups, such as minorities and women. For example to empower citizens in closed societies, DRL supports programs which aim to develop the necessary precursors for democratic reform by using new media to inform citizens about human rights and provide them a lens into the outside world. DRL also works to build the capacity of human rights activists, lawyers, and journalists to advocate for human rights by training them on how to defend their rights, including investigating and documenting human rights violations.

9) Please provide, as agreed to last year, the list of metrics used to evaluate the effectiveness of programs and a summary of their application to ongoing programs. Please provide a statement of how the evaluation is conducted (and by whom), how much of the information is verified/verifiable, and how the resulting feedback affects present and future programming. In addition, please identify for the Committee which projects in Cuba are considered most successful, and why, and which have been identified as having limited effectiveness, and why.

To assess program effectiveness, the Department of State and USAID employ standard methods and indicators for tracking programs, consistent with our methodologies used worldwide for similar assistance, the impact of which may be less immediately tangible than other assistance areas, such as health programs. In places such as Cuba, where we do not have presence in-country and where the operating environment is restricted, we recognize that it makes such monitoring more difficult.
As a result, we increased communication with those carrying out the programs. For example, USAID has a specific contract to provide additional technical assistance to partners regarding the development and monitoring of metrics to evaluate program impact. In addition, during the regular meetings between partners, tracking and reporting program impact is an ongoing area of emphasis.
The combined efforts of USG programs have been instrumental in raising the international profile of civil society activists, especially bloggers and journalists. This increased attention serves to protect opposition leaders from retribution by Cuban authorities, allowing them to continue disseminating their message and to raise awareness about grassroots issues. Please refer to question eleven for more examples of the program's effectiveness.
In the instances where programs do not produce the desired results, we are able to terminate the funding, adjust the program’s scope of work, or not extend the project. We are also phasing out programs that support activities in third countries as we deemed them less effective to advancing our goals than programs that provide support to Cubans on the island.
One program which sought to conduct parallel opinion polls, one official (i.e., openly and with Cuban government permission) and the other unofficial, encountered serious difficulties that limited its effectiveness and required troubleshooting to avoid cancelling the program. While attempting to conduct the official poll, the Cuban government gave the grantee's on-island partner permission to work on the condition that it not disseminate the survey results. This meant that the partner could not share the information with the grantee, and in effect made it impossible to conduct the open-polling portion of the work plan. In consultation with the partner, State determined that the unofficial polling activity still had enough merit to continue, and thus continued the grant while accepting that the realities of the Cuban operating environment at times require a change to the grant’s scope of work. Although delayed, the on-island partner has since conducted polls and the grantee is currently analyzing the results. Given the delay, the program was extended at no cost based on the prospects of this new methodology, the positive past performance of the grantee, and their proactive consultations with State regarding these particular developments.
Another example of a program which did not produce the desired result is the Cuba Scholarship Program with a U.S. university which USAID shut down early. The original intent of the grant was to award 20 scholarships to Cubans. The refusal of the Cuban government to provide exit visas to the selected scholars made it impossible to meet this goal and the program was terminated. USAID also terminated other programs - including one that focused on studying property rights issues and another program that supported international solidarity conferences which culminated in worldwide events to celebrate Cuba Solidarity Day each May. While these may have been fantastic events in concept, they didn't prove to provide demonstrable impact in Cuba and thus are not the types of programs USAID currently supports.

10) The Committee Staff renews its request for a statement of U.S. policy toward Cuba and how the Cuba programs administered by USAID and the State Department contribute to it. How is U.S. foreign policy better advanced through these programs and not via people-to-people contact promoted by the Administration? Please provide specific examples of those programs that can only be conducted by the U.S. government or its contractors, and why.

Since taking office, President Obama has made clear his commitment to supporting the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their own future. During the first two years of the Obama Administration, we have taken measures to increase contact between separated families and to promote the free flow of information to, from, and within Cuba – including new measures that will enable more Americans to travel to the island for academic, religious, and people-to-people exchanges. We have also engaged the Cuban government directly on key bilateral matters such as migration and direct mail service.
The democracy programs, which are authorized by Congress, advance U.S. policy toward Cuba by promoting fundamental freedoms for the Cuban people, including the freedom of expression, the freedom to peacefully assemble, and access to information. Our grantees bring to these programs unique expertise working in closed societies and/or with repressive regimes. Program proposals are selected through an open, merit-based competition.

11) State and AID are again requested to please provide the Committee with the research materials laying out the informational and analytical underpinnings for the current approach toward democracy promotion – which neither the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, nor academic entities (except those receiving Section 109 funds), nor the Intelligence Community has judged effective in Cuba. Please provide specifics of what these programs, which have cost more than $150 million so far, have accomplished. In addition, please provide an assessment of the programs’ impact on Cuban participants or recipients of assistance, including the implications for their independence and legitimacy in Cuba now and in the future.

Democracy assistance in authoritarian or totalitarian states such as Cuba is often designed to lay the groundwork for future democratic institutions and, as such, the impact of that assistance can be difficult to measure, particularly at an early stage. Nevertheless, these programs have already made notable achievements. Feedback from program recipients tells us that Cubans depend on our support and have used it in a discreet manner to exercise their fundamental freedoms while maintaining independence and legitimacy.
We have trained hundreds of journalists whose work has appeared in major international news outlets. We have facilitated information sharing into and out of Cuba as well as within Cuba. We have also provided critical humanitarian assistance to political prisoners, their families, and other victims of repression. And, we have made great strides in engaging a broader sector of the population to support them in being more active participants in advocating for the rights in resolving every day issues.
During the past few years, USAID has increasingly focused on building the capacity of civil society. We have observed these groups mature and become increasingly self-sufficient as evidenced by them taking action independent of USG support, for example carrying out community improvement activities, identifying and addressing community needs, or establishing a network with other similar groups in other cities without our assistance. USAID expanded access to social media and access to uncensored information to help Cubans communicate amongst themselves and with the outside world. We’ve trained hundreds of students and young adults in critical thinking, and promoted the contributions that Afro-Cubans have made throughout the country’s history. We trained human rights groups that have documented human rights abuses for submission to international bodies such as the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. USAID also widely disseminated information on free market economies.
DRL programs have also expanded the space for civil society in Cuba. Several DRL programs work to strengthen the capacity of provincial groups to organize at the national level, such as independent teachers. DRL's support has enabled these groups to hold a series of national congresses in which they elected and installed national leadership, created proposals for education reform, and attempted to present their proposals before the Ministry of Education. A recent program worked to build the capacity of a Cuban group to organize and manage a series of public events designed to expand the space for free expression through music and rap by enabling performers to openly express their views of the Cuban government. Beyond expanding the space for free expression, the program sought to foster a culture of voting among Cuban youth, by which audience members were able to vote for their favorite performers. The success of this program can be seen in the increased participation of Cuban youth across the life of the program. The initial event attracted nearly 200 attendees, while the final event attracted approximately 14,000 with performances by over 40 artists. Despite a large state security presence, the group, using skills learned from program trainings, successfully negotiated with authorities, allowing the final event to take place.
Another recent DRL program conducted an analysis of Cuban laws, finding the legal impediments to democratic elections and suggesting the actions that would be necessary to remove these impediments. The independent Cuban lawyers who conducted the analysis put their findings in illustrated form, a more accessible and popular vehicle for strengthening the knowledge among Cuban citizens on the rule of law, legislative process, and democratic principles. This legal review also prompted local Cuban lawyers to draft a Cuban analysis of the roadmap produced by the DRL grantee. The Cuban lawyers’ response illustrates the independent thinking generated from the work we fund.

12) Please provide State and AID’s assessment of the impact, if any, that the continuation of these programs – at increased funding from 2009 levels – will have on the status of the case of U.S. subcontractor Alan P. Gross. (State Department officials have briefed the Committee that Gross’s 2011 trial primarily served as a venue to put these programs on trial.) What is the likelihood that other contractors and subcontractors will be arrested, and how will State and AID react if this occurs?

The U.S. Congress appropriated $20 million in funding for Cuba democracy programs for FY 2009 and FY 2010. The enacted level for FY 2009 was $15.62 million. As stated previously, our programs provide humanitarian support, build civil society and facilitate the information flow in, out, and within the island. Mr. Gross’s work was consistent with these ongoing efforts.
We continue to press for Mr. Gross’s immediate release. We remain deeply concerned for his welfare and that of his family, and are using every available diplomatic channel to secure his release. The Government of Cuba could release Mr. Gross at any time. Mr. Gross is innocent, and his continued detention is unjust.
Most of the organizations that carry out programs in Cuba have experience working in closed societies. We have made efforts to limit travel by grantees and subcontractors to Cuba in an effort to minimize risks associated with carrying out the programs. Carrying-out democracy assistance in authoritarian or totalitarian states such as Cuba comes with some level of risk. All grantees and contractors are aware of such risks.

13) What exemptions are USG contractors and subcontractors granted to export goods and cash to Cuba that other American citizens, including humanitarian and religious NGOs, are not given? Which goods and what quantities of cash are exempted from the regulations that apply to all other Americans? Under what authority are contractors and subcontractors allowed to travel to Cuba as “tourists” while no other Americans are permitted to do so? Under what kind of general or specific license do they travel?

There are no exemptions for U.S. Government contractors and subcontractors traveling to Cuba, and grantees traveling under the auspices of these programs should declare all goods upon entry into Cuba. Consular officials from the Cuban government determine the type of visa travelers are issued when they travel to Cuba. The Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control determines the type of OFAC licenses under which U.S. citizens travel to Cuba.