Saturday, October 1, 2016

Democracy spending down, but controversy remains

Made in USA
Cuban officials earlier this week complained about a U.S. government-funded leadership program for Cuban youth.
"We have insisted once again on the need to end programs aimed at provoking internal changes on the island, which would be an essential step toward normalizing bilateral relations," Josefina Vidal, Cuba's director of U.S. affairs, said Friday during a Q&A session on Twitter.
I wrote about the leadership program when it was announced in 2014 (see "New program targets Cuban youth"). World Learning said in a statement sent to Martí Notícias that the program ended in August. But that didn't stop Cuban students from rallying against it earlier this week. A headline in Granma declared: "Cuban university students condemn subversive U.S. schemes."
Funding for U.S. democracy programs targeting Cuba peaked at $44.4 million in 2008 under George W. Bush, according to the Government Accountability Office. The programs continue today despite the two countries' efforts to normalize relations.
The State Department plans to spend $15 million on such programs during the 2017 fiscal year, which starts today. That is down $5 million from fiscal 2016.
The State Department says:
The FY 2017 request will support fundamental freedoms and respect for human rights. Programs will support humanitarian assistance to victims of political repression and their families, strengthen independent Cuban civil society, and freedom of expression.
Senate bill 3117 says that of the $15 million for democracy programs in Cuba:
"not less than $3,000,000 shall be made available to the United States Agency for International Development to support—(A) free enterprise and private business organizations; and (B) people-to-people educational and cultural activities." (See Appropriations Watch for details on the federal budget process).
In 2015, I figured that the State Department, along with the Agency for International Development and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, had spent around $1 billion on their Cuba programs. Some programs have drawn controversy. (See "Inspector General's Review of USAID's Cuban Civil Society Support Program").
The Associated Press on Friday said U.S. government programs were less aggressive under the Obama administration.
For most of the last half-century, the U.S tried to push Fidel Castro's government toward collapse or fuel its overthrow in an anti-Communist uprising. The Obama administration abandoned that goal in favor of slowly encouraging Cubans to develop lives independent of a single-party system that, despite limited reforms, controls most aspects of life on the island, from theater programming to the distribution of agricultural supplies. The Obama goal of gradual change is supported by millions of dollars in funding for non-governmental organizations that attempt to work directly with Cubans in programs similar to U.S.-funded efforts around the world.
USAID tells contractors that they operate at their own risk while in Cuba. According to a $6 million bid announced in January:
Applicants should be familiarized with the difficulties of working in closed societies similar to Cuba and with the particular challenges of working in Cuba. Applicants should also understand that, given the nature of the Cuban government, USAID cannot be held responsible for any injury or inconvenience suffered by individuals traveling to the island under USAID grant funding.
Officials recommend that contractors avoid sending American citizens to Cuba. The bid states:
Special thought and consideration should be given to the selection of consultants and other personnel who may be required to travel to the island. To the extent possible, travel by American citizens should be avoided. It is preferable for these personnel to speak Spanish fluently, possess solid understanding of the cultural context, and have prior experience on the island, in order to maximize their effectiveness in this unique operating environment.
Cuba programs usually last two to three years. The State Department and USAID have financed thousands of projects since the 1990s. Some are overtly political. Others have little or nothing to do with politics.
The U.S. government-financed BBG, which oversees Radio and TV Martí, sponsors self-help programs, including the radio program “Dra. Isabel.”
Cuban-born psychologist Dr. Isabel Gomez-Bassols, dubbed “The Angel of the Radio," hosts the program. The BBG announced in July that "thanks to an alliance with Hispanic Communications Network," the talk show "will now air in Cuba and take calls and emails from Martí’s audience on the island."
Dr. Isabel Gomez-Bassols. Photo: La Red Hispana
The chairman and founder of Hispanic Communications Network is Jeff Kline. I have written about him before (See "The Other Alan Gross" and "The incredible disappearing $450,000 contract").
On June 15, another one of Kline's companies, Canyon Communications, received a $24,000 contract for "production services in Cuba."
In-country work
The BBG has paid Canyon Communications $1,845,823 since July 15, 2014, records show.
U.S. officials sidestep questions about whether U.S. government-financed projects are legal in Cuba. A prospective contractor looking at one grant opportunity asked USAID:
Is this program endorsed by the Cuban government?
The agency replied:
This program operates under the jurisdiction and authority of U.S. law.
Related: U.S. Embassy in Havana offers grants up to $100,000.

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