An omnivore named Bill Clinton was president, the Dallas Cowboys were Super Bowl champs and Fidel Castro was in power.
Some democracy activists complain that the United States isn’t doing enough to bring about change in Cuba, but others fault the U.S. strategy.
“The money that the United States has spent trying to overthrow the Cuban government has been money down the rat hole. The proof of it is that the Cuban government is still in place and all that money's been expended to no good end,” said William LeoGrande, a political science professor at American University in Washington, D.C.
Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, and interviews with current and former aid recipients in Havana and Miami show that the U.S. government:
- Outsources most democracy-building activities to private contractors, hindering oversight and public accountability.
- Declares its democracy programs to be transparent while refusing to release key details of contractors’ activities in Cuba.
- Spends millions of dollars on program administration, travel, office rent and other expenses outside Cuba while many democracy activists – the ones most likely to wind up in prison - struggle to pay for bare necessities.
“U.S. Government programs, which enjoy broad bipartisan backing, support Cubans striving for basic human rights and fundamental freedoms,” USAID spokesman Kamyl Bazbaz said. “We are proud that the most recent GAO report recognized that the programs are well-managed, transparent, and achieving their objectives.”
|USAID headquarters in Washington, D.C.|
The GAO report did not examine whether the Cuba programs had any impact on the island.
Congress has appropriated $225 million for Cuban democracy programs since 1996. USAID received about two-thirds of the money and the State Department got the rest. Over the past five years, annual funding for the programs has ranged from $15 million to $20 million.
USAID says it operates its Cuba programs in a transparent fashion. An agency spokeswoman stated:
“All our program information, in great detail, is listed on our website at www.usaid.gov under ‘Where we work’ on the Cuba page.”
The “great detail” she refers to includes:
- Six sentences describing the Cuba democracy program.
- A quote from Barack Obama.
- A list showing USAID’s seven prime contractors and the amount of money they receive.
The U.S. government steadfastly conceals full details of its Cuba program spending, despite President Barack Obama’s 2009 promise to “usher in a new era of open government.”
In response to dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests filed since December 2010, USAID has released only general information about its Cuba programs, redacting many documents and refusing to disclose others.
The government has so far refused to release a single page of information in response to 2011 FOIA requests about the Cuba programs of several of the largest contractors, including Creative Associates International, the Pan American Development Foundation and Development Alternatives Inc., or DAI.
Bigwood calls it “hypocrisy on steroids.” He said:
“If you're going to go around the world and you're going to put on a show of this stuff about transparency, you have to be transparent yourself. Otherwise, just say - we're not going to be transparent. Just say that - you know, throw out the FOIA. …if you're going to claim to be a democracy, you've got to act like it.”
Bigwood sued USAID in 2006 because it refused to name organizations it funded in Venezuela. The agency had poured money into the country to support political groups opposed to Hugo Chavez after a failed coup in 2002.
“By withholding information on the entities, organizations and corporations that it funds, USAID is transformed from a civilian to a clandestine service,” Bigwood argued in one court document.
In 2007, a federal judge ruled in favor of USAID, saying that the need to protect aid recipients outweighed Bigwood’s interest in knowing how his government was spending tax dollars.
Since then, it’s become even more difficult to obtain documents about the government’s inner workings, Bigwood said. “That is perhaps one of the most depressing things,” he said. “It's actually gotten worse.”
In response to a FOIA request filed in 2010, USAID withheld in its entirety the winning proposal that a contractor submitted in response to the agency’s Cuba Democracy and Contingency Planning Program.
The agency wouldn’t name the contractor and has not responded to an August 2011 appeal of its ruling.
But previously hidden details about the program surfaced unexpectedly after Cuban authorities arrested American development worker Alan Gross in 2009. USAID was forced to reveal that the contractor was Development Alternatives Inc., or DAI. The Maryland company had hired Gross to set up satellite Internet connections in Cuba.
Gross, 64, and his wife Judy sued DAI and the federal government in November 2012, saying they failed to prepare him for the risky mission.
The legal fight has provided a rare glimpse into USAID’s programs. A confidential DAI memo filed in court said top agency officials stressed the importance of secrecy during a private 2008 meeting with DAI.
DAI learned during the meeting that the U.S. government had “five to seven different transition plans” for Cuba. DAI would “not be asked to write a new one.”
|Cuban President Raúl Castro|
Then-President George Bush had ramped up funding for democracy programs and DAI had been awarded a key $28 million contract.
DAI’s projects included a daring plan to set up satellite Internet connections under the nose of Cuban state security agents.
“The democracy programs that USAID runs are essentially covert political action programs. They're the kinds of things that the Central Intelligence Agency used to do before the Reagan administration. So the programs that are targeting Cuba are really unique in that regard, and they really haven't been effective.”
Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba specialist at the National Security Archive at George Washington
“It's been one of the great boondoggles – over $200 million spent on these programs... in which very little has been accomplished on the ground.”
Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, questioned whether U.S. government-financed dissidents were in a position to bring about change in Cuba.
“Cubans don’t know who they are, they don’t know their names, and so it strikes me as just silliness to be putting a lot of resources into supporting a small group of people who aren’t really in the position… to make real change. And I say that with a lot of respect for those people and the risks they’re taking and the hardships that they go through.”
Much of the democracy money destined for Cuba never even reaches the island, Stephens added.
“The money gets sent through these private contractors and through various NGOs, many of them based in Miami, and large amounts of that money stays in Miami or stays in Florida, and I think that if the taxpayers understood that they’d find this a little more troublesome.
“There is so little transparency…so little public information about what they’re actually doing with this $20 million. This is not covert, this is not the CIA… and yet you cannot get information about it, and I find that deeply troubling.”
To hide the trail leading back to Washington, some USAID partners routinely outsource work to subcontractors in such countries as Argentina, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, France and Spain.
USAID "has essentially become a government contracting agency," Guess said. “USAID has little or no in-house capacity to design and implement the many different broad policy programs and objectives it is required to carry out.”
Outsourcing adds to the cost of the democracy programs.
It can also undermine accountability, said U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.
“It's all kind of in the shadows when you start contracting out to these people,” she said.
|U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky|
Darsi Ferret, a former political prisoner in Cuba, said U.S. support is “very significant” to the democratic cause. Dissidents in Havana are allowed to use the Internet at the American diplomatic post, known as the U.S. Interests Section. And Radio and TV Martí cover dissidents’ plight and get out their message, Ferret said.
“The $15 million – I don’t know where the $15, or $30 or $50 million winds up.”
Other dissidents agreed.
“The day we can give $10 or $15 million to those who are fighting inside Cuba, who often have torn up shoes and pants – there are times when they don’t have food for their children – if we could give them $15 million, I assure you that things would be different,” said Luis Enrique Ferrer, a former political prisoner who is now the U.S. representative of an opposition group called the Unión Patriótica de Cuba, or Patriotic Union of Cuba.
If anything, the U.S. government should increase support, Ferrer and other democracy activists said.
|Alberto de la Cruz|
Asked how much money reached dissidents and other targets in Cuba, USAID replied in 2010:
“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.”
That said, USAID doesn’t reveal precisely how much support reaches Cuba. Tax records of the agency’s seven main contractors show that much of their resources go toward salaries, office expenses, conferences and travel – all outside Cuba.
Many dissidents wind up receiving only token amounts - $50 or $75 per month.
“There is no government as effective as Cuba’s in discrediting the opposition. It handles all these things very skillfully… with no ethical limits.”
“This is a very complex problem,” Yañez said. U.S. democracy programs have their flaws, yet bringing democratic change to Cuba “without foreign money, without outside support, would be practically impossible.”
Cuban dissidents often have little or no money of their own because they are expelled from their government jobs as soon as they join the political opposition, Yañez said.
|Sally Shelton Colby|
“U.S. policy has been a total failure,” she said. “We've had the same policy for a half a century and it hasn't worked. So there are growing numbers of Americans like myself who feel that it is in the national interest of the U.S. to change that policy.”
Shelton-Colby, who has been the U.S. ambassador to Grenada, Barbados and other countries, is the former assistant administrator for global programs at USAID.
“I'm very supportive of democracy promotion where it is possible,” she said, “but in Cuba this has been a total waste of money. It's time to completely redefine that relationship with Cuba altogether and just end the embargo and establish a normalized relationship.”