In Cuba, the case against Alan Gross is black and white. He went to the island with fancy satellite gear as part of a broader U.S.-government-financed effort to undermine the socialist regime.
But in the United States, the pro-democracy programs that sent Gross to Cuba are not at all black and white. They are complicated, somewhat mysterious programs, charged with politics and tainted with shades of grays.
Here are 10 reasons why the U.S.-funded Cuba programs are intriguing and controversial:
- Some programs are semi-covert or treated as clandestine. Normally, the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, wants the world to know of the agency's work. Agency-financed programs are proudly emblazoned with the USAID logo, but that's not so with Cuba programs. Private contractors working in Cuba have a blanket waiver on the usual branding requirements. They're allowed to hide the fact that USAID is footing the bill.
- They are mysterious. USAID doesn't publicize details of agency-funded operations in Cuba. Some people have tried to obtain information, but without much success. Dana Lubow, a librarian at LA Valley College, told me she filed some 400 Freedom of Information Act requests to try to obtain more information, but got "virtually nothing" in return.
- They are lucrative, to some people at least. The U.S. government has spent some $150 million on Cuba-related pro-democracy programs since 1996, when such programs were authorized under Section 109 of the Libertad Act. That doesn't include $20 million requested in the fiscal 2012 budget.
- They are provocative, considering their relatively small size. The $20 million planned for 2012 is a tiny fraction of the $3.5 trillion federal budget. For every $1 million that the U.S. government spends, just $5.60 goes to Cuba. USAID told me in a statement in October 2010 that "the 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." Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez found that statement so troubling that he read it before the United Nations General Assembly and Fidel Castro then repeated it in one of his Reflections. In practice, some observers say, only a fraction of the USAID money ever reaches the island. "The destiny of that money is a great mystery to me because if anything reaches Cuba, I can assure you that it's very little. Crumbs," Cuban dissident Elizardo Sanchez told me. And some of the American tax dollars fall into the hands of Cuban agents who have infiltrated the dissident movement, former agent Aleida Godinez said. Still, it doesn't take much money to ignite the fury of Cuba's socialist government. Meddling in the country's internal political affairs is a core issue for Cuba. It's one of those non-negotiable items. It's sacred, one Cuban official told me. And a laptop and $100 per month in U.S. aid is more than enough to land a Cuban dissident in prison.
- They are fraught with danger. It is illegal for Cubans to accept U.S. funds that are aimed at undermining the Cuban government. Miriam Leiva, wife of Cuban dissident Oscar Espinosa Chepe, told me U.S. funds led to husband's jailing in 2003. He has since been released.
- They've been touched with scandal. One USAID bought "a gas chainsaw, computer gaming equipment and software (including Nintendo Gameboys and Sony Playstations), a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat, and Godiva chocolates" with funds that were supposed to be used for humanitarian aid, according this GAO report (Download 63-page PDF). Another recipient of U.S. funds embezzled more than a half million dollars and used it to buy a $10,200 piano, $5,000 in artwork and $16,000 in travel and lodging (See All because of those #!%#& Chinese radios). USAID funds were "unaccountable pots of money," a former Clinton administration official with knowledge of the Cuba programs told me.
- They are a window into Florida politics. One Miami politician told me that lawmakers fight over the programs. Lawmakers want to have some influence over who gets the money and they sometimes try to steer USAID contracts to their political allies, said the politician, who asked not to be identified. He said he sees USAID money as a form of political patronage.
- They are contentious even among Cuban-Americans. The Cuban American National Foundation, for instance, has criticized the programs, saying not enough of the money reaches Cuba. A March 2008 CANF study of USAID programs showed that less than 17 percent of all USAID Cuba funds were used for direct, on-island assistance. Some 56 percent went to universities and other institutions to study post-Castro scenarios and other issues. Much of the money was used to pay operating expenses, office costs and salaries. One organization, Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia, spent $6,054,079 from 1996 to 2005. Only 4 percent - or $251,077 - reached Cuba.
- They give clues to longer-term U.S. strategy in Cuba. The programs reached a high point in 2008 when spending hit $45.33 million. USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives, or OTI, also wanted to get into the act. OTI specializes in "fast, flexible, short-term assistance targeted at key political transition and stabilization needs." OTI is part of USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance. Its employees move quickly and have the ability to dump money and resources into countries during critical moments. OTI's website says it "has laid the foundation for long-term development in 31 conflict-prone countries by promoting reconciliation, jump-starting local economies, supporting nascent independent media, and fostering peace and democracy through innovative programming. In countries undergoing a transition from authoritarianism to democracy...initiatives serve as catalysts for positive political change." OTI saw its "window of opportunity" in Cuba in 2008, one document shows. That's when Cuban students confronted Ricardo Alarcon at the University of Havana, demanding to know why ordinary Cubans couldn't go to tourist hotels, had difficulty getting Internet access and couldn't travel freely outside the country. USAID has not disclosed the details of OTI's work.
- They are evolving. As one Washington official described it to me, the programs are undergoing "course correction." The goal, he said, was to make the programs less provocative. He and other officials said supporters of the programs, including both contractors and supporters within the State Department, were fighting back. A goal of those trying to reform USAID programs is to steer some of the contracts to NGOs instead of private contractors. Pro-democracy work isn't a business for NGOs, the source said. It's their passion, he said, and so perhaps they'll do a better job than such contractors as Alan Gross.