Saturday, December 6, 2014

Another "window of opportunity" for OTI?

Has OTI launched another Cuba project?
At least three companies that have carried out democracy projects in Cuba have been awarded contracts as part of a $2.5 billion U.S. government campaign to help promote political change in countries around the world.
A little-known agency known as the Office of Transition Initiatives, or OTI, is leading the effort. It is a branch of the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.
Here's how a 2009 Congressional Research Service report described OTI:
Unlike its counterparts at USAID, its mission is neither humanitarian nor development-oriented. OTI’s activities are overtly political, based on the idea that in the midst of political crisis and instability abroad there are local agents of change whose efforts, when supported by timely and creative U.S. assistance, can tip the balance toward peaceful and democratic outcomes that advance U.S. foreign policy objectives.
USAID announced early this year that nine companies had been awarded contracts under an in-house OTI contracting mechanism called Support Which Implements Fast Transitions, or SWIFT. At least three of the firms have done Cuba projects. They are Creative Associates International Inc., International Relief and Development Inc., and Development Alternatives Inc., or DAI (See list of winners).
DAI is the company that sent development worker Alan Gross to Cuba, a mission that led to his arrest in December 2009.
Creative Associates ran a Cuba program from a secret base in Costa Rica. I wrote about that in November 2012 (See "$11 million for clandestine work in Costa Rica?").
In October 2011, I filed three Freedom of Information Act requests for details about Creative's work in Cuba. More than three years later, USAID has not responded, other than acknowledging receipt of my requests.
In April 2014, an Associated Press investigation revealed that one of Creative's projects was ZunZuneo, a social networking service targeting Cubans.

USAID quietly shut down ZunZuneo and ended its contract with Creative in 2012. Records show that the company's contract was worth up to $15,535,979, but it received only $11,170,671.
That was under SWIFT III. Contractors compete for SWIFT contracts every five years.
SWIFT IV work is now underway. I have not seen any documents showing whether OTI has started a new Cuba project.
OTI shows its past Cuba project as "closed"
OTI employs highly qualified personnel with extensive Cuba experience. Utset is among the Cuba specialists that pops up in federal records.
In 2013 and 2014, OTI paid a "senior transition advisor" named Utset $150,000 as part of a contract worth up to $649,984. The gentleman is alternately listed as F. Xavier Utset, F. Utset and Francisco Utset.
USAID's personnel directory shows that a Francisco Utset works for OTI, which is part of USAID's Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance.
The most recent payment to Utset was for $25,000, records show, and covers the period from Aug. 4, 2014, to Feb. 23, 2015.
Records don't show whether the payments are tied to a specific Cuba project. In fact, the payments may have nothing to do with Cuba at all.
But I wonder...
Has OTI launched another Cuba project? Or is another project in the works?
Xavier Utset
A Cuba specialist named Xavier Utset was at Creative while the company was running the Costa Rica operation. Previously, he worked at Freedom House. He had studied Cuba for years. A sample of his early thinking can be found in a 2009 paper called, "The Cuban Democracy Movement: An Analytical Overview."
An aside: Another past Creative employee is Caleb McCarry, the "Cuba Transition Coordinator" during the administration of George W. Bush. McCarry now works as a senior staff member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, according to his LinkedIn page.
Another curiosity: In 2011, Cuban state security agent Raúl Capote linked a man named Marcos Utset to the U.S. government-financed plot to smuggle satellite dishes into Cuba disguised as boogie boards (See "Revisiting 'Operation Surf'").
Back to OTI.
The 2009 CRS report said that it is often difficult to know how OTI spends it money until after the fact.
I went through OTI-related contracts with Creative, DAI and International Relief and Development Inc., and didn't see traces of any Cuba projects.
The six other companies to win SWIFT IV contracts were:
  • AECOM International Development Inc.
  • Chemonics International Inc.
  • International Resources Group Ltd.
  • Management Systems International Inc.
  • Research Triangle Institute International
  • Casals & Associates
I didn't find any indication that they were carrying out any Cuba projects, either.
But I would not be surprised to see an OTI contractor jump back into Cuba at some point. Cuba is eligible for OTI involvement (See list of suitable countries). And the country certainly is important to the United States.
According to a 2012 OTI presentation, the agency asks four questions before starting a project:
  • Is the country important to U.S. national interests?
  • Is there a window of opportunity?
  • Can OTI's involvement significantly increase the changes of a successful transition?
  • Is the operating environment sufficiently stable?
OTI outlined this criteria at a SWIFT IV pre-solicitation conference held on June 20, 2012. (See transcript of conference here and attendees here).
OTI's multimillion-dollar budget
OTI's website says it is operating projects in 12 nations, including Afghanistan, Honduras and Lebanon. It does not list Cuba.
By law, OTI must give the House and Senate appropriations committees five days' notice before launching new programs.
The 2009 CRS report said the agency's programs had "limited public transparency." The report stated:
...OTI is not precluded from using resources transferred from other development and economic assistance funds. Together with the notwithstanding provision of Section 491, these annual appropriations provisions allow OTI to pursue a wide range of activities without having to meet certain administrative requirements, particularly related to contracting and procurement.
Unlike many foreign assistance programs, Transition Initiative programs are often initiated on short notice and are not always accurately detailed in budget justification documents. The annual appropriations provisions for OTI require that the office give only five days’ notice to Congress of new TI programs, and even ongoing programs are not reported at the same level of detail as other foreign assistance programs. OTI is not part of the 653(a) process through which agencies and congressional appropriators agree on final country and program allocations at the start of each new fiscal year. As a result, it can be difficult to determine how money is to be spent until after the fact or, in particularly sensitive cases such as Pakistan and Colombia, to identify specific grantees even after the money is spent. Some who have worked with OTI say that the overtly political aspect of OTI’s programs requires more discretion in the release of information about specific grantees. In some situations, knowledge of U.S. government support for program partners would undermine the partners’ efforts or even endanger local personnel. This is also true, however, of other USAID and State Department foreign assistance activities for which such information is more readily accessible. While OTI reports meeting regularly with congressional oversight committee staff, Congress may wish to evaluate whether the need for program speed, flexibility, and discretion continues to justify the limited public transparency of OTI programs.
OTI staff

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