Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Vietnam veteran in Cuba seeks justice

Photo: Desmond Boylan/AP
The Associated Press today reported on a Vietnam veteran's efforts to regain federal benefits that were cut off after he wound up living in Cuba.
I wrote about the case of Otto Macias on Jan. 13. Here is the top of the Associated Press story by Michael Weissenstein:
HAVANA — Otto Macias was 19 when he left Cuba in the throes of a socialist revolution, enlisted in the U.S. Army and went to fight communists as a machine-gunner in Vietnam.

He returned from battle in 1969 — broken and suffering from post-traumatic stress and schizophrenia, his family says. After years of hospitalization in New York, Macias, then a U.S. citizen, was well enough in 1980 to fly to Cuba to visit relatives he hadn't seen in decades. He never returned.

As he stayed with family in Havana, Macias' hallucinations became so bad he required hospitalization and constant care from doctors or loved ones, his relatives say. Less than a year later, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs cut off his monthly pension of $60 — a large sum for Cuba, where salaries today average about $25 a month. The U.S. agency never explained the cutoff, but the family's American lawyer says he's certain it was because of the United States' trade embargo on Cuba.

Plan would replace Office of Cuba Broadcasting

The Broadcasting Board of Governors's proposed 2017 budget calls for creation of a new, non-governmental organization that would carry out the functions of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
The budget highlights state:
Spanish Language Grantee for Cuba: BBG requests authority to establish a new Spanish language, non-Federal media organization that would receive a BBG grant and perform the functions of the current Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
The BBG requests a total of $777.8 million for fiscal 2017. That also includes $2 million in research funds to finance "impact studies to engage next-generation influencers who use mobile, social and digital media in areas experiencing violent extremism, to assist in developing audience loyalty and trust for BBG’s expanding Russian media, and to increase the impact of digital media in Cuba and Latin America."

Friday, January 22, 2016

USAID mission: Shape the Cuba narrative

A multimillion-dollar U.S. government-financed program was aimed at, among other things, developing an "information program focusing on the impact of foreign investors and foreign tourists on Cuba" and sensitizing the "business community and foreign leaders about the labor conditions and tourist apartheid in the island."
That's according to a document that the U.S. Agency for International Development released on Jan. 19 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that I made on Oct. 8, 2011.
The document describes a contract that USAID awarded to the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington, D.C., for a program called, "Uncensored Cuba."
The contract ran from March 31, 2005, to April 30, 2009, and was worth up to $7,231,663. USAID wound up paying the Center for a Free Cuba $6,652,853.12.
USAID censored details of Uncensored Cuba's budget, redacting the salaries, fringe benefits, communications, travel and other costs.
Budget details redacted
Frank Calzón, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, signed the contract. It stated:
During the three-year period of this cooperative agreement, the Center for a Free Cuba plans to focus on the following objectives:
#1: To continue its democracy building program that attempts to break Castro's monopoly of information by providing Cubans with literature on transition to democracy and market economics,

USAID announces $6 million in Cuba grants

The U.S. Agency for International Development on Thursday announced that it is offering $6 million in grants over a three-year period to organizations that will "provide humanitarian assistance to political prisoners and their families, and politically marginalized individuals and groups in Cuba."
Grant amounts will range from $500,000 to $2 million. The application deadline is Feb. 25.
In the grant notice, USAID warns against sending American citizens to Cuba.
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.
The agency also says that grant recipients will be going to Cuba at their own risk and may not hold USAID responsible for what might happen to them. The notice states:
The U.S. government cannot ensure the safety and security of Recipient assets and personnel, particularly as relates to individuals traveling to Cuba under USAID funding, or project staff based in Cuba. Implementation of USAID programs in Cuba requires Recipient awareness of political sensitivities and assumption of risks associated with hostile actions of the Cuban government.
The Recipient will not serve as an agent or act under the direction of USAID and will be responsible for the efficient and effective administration of its own programs with sound business judgment, including any precautions inherent therein. ...the Recipient shall not hold USAID liable for injury, death, detainment, incarceration, kidnapping, property loss, damages, or expenses incidental to those liabilities, suffered by, or attributable to the acts, omissions or negligence of, the Recipient, its agents, or its employees implementing programs in Cuba under this NFO.
The grant program is called “Humanitarian Assistance to Cuba." The program description says:
By supporting civil society and promoting the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people, the President and the U.S. aim to empower the Cuban people to decide their own destiny.
USAID says the program is justified because "the Cuban government currently is detaining dozens of political prisoners for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression."
The grant notice says that by the end of 2015, there had been at least 8,616 political arrests in Cuba. Without getting into the merits or potential pitfalls of USAID's program, I think it's worth pointing out that many of those arrested for political reasons are taking part in programs funded by the U.S. government or U.S. government-financed organizations. I am not arguing for or against such programs or saying there are no human rights violations in Cuba, but I find it interesting that existing U.S. government programs are used to help justify and fuel the need for new programs.
Additional details about the program are below:

On July 20, 2015, the United States and Cuba formally re-established diplomatic relations and re-opened embassies in each other’s respective countries. The establishment of diplomatic relations allows the U.S. to discuss matters of mutual concern that would advance U.S. national interests, such as migration, counternarcotics, disaster response, environmental protection, and support for human rights. By supporting civil society and promoting the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people, the President and the U.S. aim to empower the Cuban people to decide their own destiny.