Friday, September 24, 2010

OTI's Cuba program designed for fast action, minimal red tape

Screenshot of budget document

I wonder what's going on with the Office of Transition Initiatives' Cuba program. The OTI is part of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The organization's website says it:
supports U.S. foreign policy objectives by helping local partners advance peace and democracy in priority countries in crisis. Seizing critical windows of opportunity, OTI works on the ground to provide fast, flexible, short-term assistance targeted at key political transition and stabilization needs.
Budget documents show that OTI started a Cuba program in 2007. Its mission was to:
Connect non-traditional groups with other democratic actors in the region and support youth-led, independent media initiatives.
OTI's budget for Cuba was listed as $174,000 for 2009 and $200,000 for 2010, according to this budget document (see the 92nd page of the 396-page document; it's marked Page 74).
The document does not list an estimated budget for 2011.
The U.S. government started a Cuba program at OTI in 2007 because officials thought Cuba was ripe for change.

Private contractors, like the one that sent Alan Gross to Cuba to distribute high-tech communications gear, carry out much of OTI's work.
A government document I obtained in 2008 described some of OTI's thinking at the time:
With President Fidel Castro’s resignation after 49 years in power and the recent selection of Raul Castro as his successor, Cuba is, at the very least, undergoing a symbolic transition that might signal a broader democratic political transition in the near future. Since Raul assumed the presidency, the Cuban people have publicly indicated that expectations for reform are very high and a “business-as-usual” approach to this succession would be a tremendous disappointment. Raul Castro’s administration has at least publicly supported a process called “debate critico” as an officially-accepted channel to speak more openly about issues within the current system. For the current Castro regime, the process so far has informed the government of perceived reform priorities at the grassroots and has provided some space for the government to begin implementing gradual and cautious political and economic reforms.
From a political development perspective, the “debate critico” may be creating an important political opening for the people of Cuba and for USAID/OTI engagement. There is evidence that this process is already allowing space to debate the current system. The BBC recently aired a video from a computer science school in Cuba that showed students peppering the head of the Cuban National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon, with questions about restrictions on ability to travel and access to hotels as well as lack of transparency in candidate selection for the recent national assembly elections. As a result, the Cuban government has announced reforms to allow access to hotels and the purchase of a broader array of consumer goods including cell phones. There have also been numerous recent articles that point to a growing discontent among the younger generation (the so-called Generation Y) that grew up during the economic downturn and later reforms in the 1990s. Youth advocates have proven to be a different type of dissident—less focused on opposition to the Castro government and more focused on areas where their opportunities for advancement are negatively impacted by specific policies. This political space for dissent, while still nascent, represents a window of opportunity for USAID/OTI to support a peaceful democratic transition.
OTI contractors must often move quickly to take advantage of fleeting windows of opportunity. Speed is of great importance, and contractors are allowed to cut corners when it comes to getting permission for expenses.

The 2008 document said the OTI country representative was allowed to spend up to $100,000 without getting permission from Washington.
An OTI officer in Washington had authority to approve expenses of $100,000 to $250,000. Expenses above $250,000 required the approval of a contracting officer in Washington.
If anyone has any additional information on OTI operations in Cuba, feel free to leave a comment. You may also send a private e-mail to my address: Thanks!

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