Friday, November 29, 2013

"Fistful of dollars" falls short

The U.S. government launched its first democracy programs targeting Cuba in 1996.
An omnivore named Bill Clinton was president, the Dallas Cowboys were Super Bowl champs and Fidel Castro was in power.
Seventeen years later, Clinton is a vegetarian and the Cowboys missed the playoffs yet again, but someone named Castro is still in charge of that insolent island called Cuba.
Some democracy activists complain that the United States isn’t doing enough to bring about change in Cuba, but others fault the U.S. strategy.
“The money that the United States has spent trying to overthrow the Cuban government has been money down the rat hole. The proof of it is that the Cuban government is still in place and all that money's been expended to no good end,” said William LeoGrande, a political science professor at American University in Washington, D.C.
William LeoGrande
“I don't think anybody who thinks we need a change in U.S. policy towards Cuba is against democracy in Cuba. I think the criticism of the current policy in Cuba is that it's been trying to bring about democracy in Cuba for 50 years and hasn't worked.” LeoGrande contends that U.S. democracy programs in Cuba are inefficient, secretive and poorly designed.
Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, and interviews with current and former aid recipients in Havana and Miami show that the U.S. government:
  • Outsources most democracy-building activities to private contractors, hindering oversight and public accountability.
  • Declares its democracy programs to be transparent while refusing to release key details of contractors’ activities in Cuba.
  • Spends millions of dollars on program administration, travel, office rent and other expenses outside Cuba while many democracy activists – the ones most likely to wind up in prison - struggle to pay for bare necessities.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, cited a January 2013 GAO report as evidence that the Cuba programs are sound.
“U.S. Government programs, which enjoy broad bipartisan backing, support Cubans striving for basic human rights and fundamental freedoms,” USAID spokesman Kamyl Bazbaz said. “We are proud that the most recent GAO report recognized that the programs are well-managed, transparent, and achieving their objectives.”
USAID headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The GAO report examined how democracy funds were administered. It showed, for instance, that USAID’s had improved internal financial oversight measures aimed at detecting questionable costs. And those measures, USAID said, led to the identification of $6.8 million in questioned costs.
The GAO report did not examine whether the Cuba programs had any impact on the island.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Alan Gross, a soldier left behind

During talks with Cuba earlier this year, the United States reiterated its call for the release of Alan Gross, insisting yet again that the American development worker was jailed solely for trying to help Cubans communicate with the outside world.
At the same time, the U.S. Agency for International Development was busy fielding questions from contractors interested in the latest Cuba-related opportunity: up to $6 million for companies interested in shuttling Cuban democracy activists to third countries for hands-on human rights and democracy training.
One contractor asked:
“Would USAID require that Cuba participants in the program be notified of the source of funds for the program?”
USAID didn’t have a yes or no answer to that question. The agency replied:
“Implementing partners would be expected to take the in-country environment into account to minimize risks, keeping in mind that this is a transparent program…”
Four years after Cuban authorities arrested Alan Gross, pro-democracy work in Cuba remains perilous and the U.S. goal is much the same: To help Cuba's democracy activists push the socialist government from power.
Cuban officials are just as resolute and vow to undermine USAID's democracy programs in any way they can.
Josefina Vidal
“The programs…have an interventionist, hostile and destabilizing nature,” said Josefina Vidal, a senior official at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry in Havana. “They are founded on the principles of the Helms-Burton Act, which aims to achieve ‘regime change’ in Cuba, completely dismantle the economic, political and social system, and impose a government, against the will of Cubans, which serves the interests of the United States.”
“These programs are semi-clandestine and semi-undercover by their nature and by the way in which they are implemented, behind the back of Cuban authorities and surrounded by secrecy about their true intentions.”
As Cuban officials see it, Alan Gross is living proof of the U.S. government’s persistent regime-change campaign.
Gross was a soldier, albeit of a different sort. Instead of the usual M9 pistol, he carried a Samsonite briefcase, plenty of cash and 15 credit cards. In place of a combat uniform and boots, he wore beige Land’s End pants and brown Rockport shoes.
He spoke no Spanish, but was an experienced international development worker and had worked in such hotspots as Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Alan Gross
His weapon was technology. He traveled to Havana in 2009 with satellite communication gear, wireless transmitters, routers, cables and switches – enough to set up Internet connections and Wi-Fi hotspots that the socialist government would not be able to detect or control.
He worked for Development Alternatives Inc., a Maryland contractor that USAID had hired to carry out a democracy-promotion program.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Critics question regime-change strategy in Cuba

Antonio Zamora once thought only violence would bring about change in Cuba. He took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and was captured and taken prisoner.
After his release, he returned to the United States, eventually becoming a leader of the Cuban American National Foundation, a Miami exile organization once accused of planning and financing attacks within Cuba.
As the years passed, Zamora had a change of heart. He decided that violence was wrong and telling Cubans how to run their country wasn’t the answer.
“You cannot do that. That’s never going to succeed.”
Antonio Zamora
Zamora supports efforts to bring democracy to Cuba, but isn’t convinced that all the money the U.S. government has spent on regime-change programs and Radio and TV Martí over the past 30 years has been effective.
“I mean, it’s almost a billion dollars,” said Zamora, a lawyer. “It’s ridiculous. It’s not a lot of money in the United States, but that’s not the point. The point is, what have we done?”
Some others agree, saying it’s not the money – or the idea of promoting freedom - that bothers them the most. It’s the strategy.
Sarah Stephens
“We have an idea about how Cuba should be, what kind of government it should have, how it should run its country and our policy is all about trying to impose that idea on Cuba,” said Sarah Stephens, director of the non-profit Center for Democracy in the Americas in Washington, D.C. “It will never work.”
Josefina Vidal, a senior official at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry in Havana, said U.S. regime-change programs have had minimal impact in Cuba and “have no future” on the island.
“Relations between the two countries in many other areas will continue,” she said. “But while these programs are maintained, the conditions persist for incidents and frictions to arise, rarifying the bilateral climate and hindering the possibilities of developing a respectful relationship between the two countries.
“If the U.S. is really interested in establishing a respectful relationship with Cuba, it must end these programs.”
USAID operates Cuban democracy programs under Section 109 of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act.
The act imposes international sanctions against the Cuban government and seeks a transitional government that would lead to “a democratically elected government in Cuba.”

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hijacker could get 20 years

William Potts
William Potts spent more than 13 years in prison in Cuba after hijacking a plane from Miami to the island in 1984. He returned to Florida earlier this month, turned himself in and hopes for mercy.
Federal sentencing guidelines in the United States call for a minimum mandatory of 20 years for air piracy. If prosecutors give Potts credit for 13 years, he could get a 7-year term. Other factors - his cooperation with authorities, for example - could also influence the outcome of his case.
Potts, 56, is being held at the Federal Detention Center in Miami. His trial is set to begin on Dec. 16. That date could change if his lawyer or prosecutors aren't ready. If the case goes to trial, prosecutors expect the trial would last three days.
Both sides still need to examine dozens of documents in the case. Prosecutors, for instance, are waiting to receive State Department documents detailing meetings that Potts had with officials at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana before leaving Cuba on Nov. 6.
Potts' lawyer is Robert Berube, an assistant federal public defender in Fort Lauderdale. The prosecutor in the case is Maria K. Medetis, an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami.
Wilfredo A. Ferrer
The U.S. attorney is Wilfredo A. Ferrer, a Miami native whose parents were born in Cuba.
Ferrer told the Daily Business Review:
My mom was a legal secretary. My dad was a CPA in Cuba, but he didn't speak any English. My dad would wear signs saying he would cut grass for $5.
U.S. District Court Judge Robin S. Rosenbaum is the trial judge. She is currently the Obama administration's nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
Rosenbaum presided over a Nov. 19 hearing to decide if Potts could be released pending trial. She wrote:
Having considered the evidence presented at the pre-trial detention hearing, the pre-trial services report, and the factors enumerated in 18 U.S.C. ' 3142(g), this Court finds that no condition or combination of conditions will reasonably assure the safety of the community and the appearance of the defendant as required if the defendant is released on bond. Therefore, this
Court orders the detention of the defendant prior to trial and until the conclusion of trial.

Friday, November 22, 2013

CDA videos are part of larger project

Harold Cardenas, top, then clockwise, Yoani Sánchez, José Daniel Ferrer, Jesús Arboleya and Roberto Guerra.
The Center for Democracy in the Americas today posted two videos that I produced for the non-profit organization, based in Washington, D.C.
"Diplomacy Derailed" and "Failure Compounded" focus on U.S. policy toward Cuba. I made the videos while working with the CDA from January to June 2013 during a six-month collaborative project. See articles I shared with the organization here.
The videos are part of a broader independent video project I have been doing to better understand the pro-democracy movement in Cuba and the role of the U.S. government and taxpayer-financed organizations.
Once I finish the project, it will include many voices, ranging from dissident leader José Daniel Ferrer, independent journalist Roberto Guerra and democracy activist Yoani Sanchez to former diplomat Jesús Arboleya and blogger Harold Cardenas.
I expect that the video will run 90 minutes or so or I might split it two - I haven't decided on that. I spent many weeks editing the project over the summer, but am not quite done.
For several months now, I've put the project, along with blogging and writing, on the back-burner. I have been busy with my day job and other things and haven't had time for Cuba work. But I will get back to it as soon as I can.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Peter Kornbluh discusses Kennedy assassination

Peter Kornbluh
Fidel Castro was having lunch with a French journalist in Varadero when the phone rang. The message: John F. Kennedy had been shot and was dead.
"They're going to say we did it," Castro reportedly said.
And that is what happened, according to Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C.
Kornbluh has dedicated much of his career to digging up once-classified documents and other information to try to get to the bottom of historic events involved the United States and Cuba. He and William LeoGrande are authors of a forthcoming book called, "Talking With Cuba: The Hidden History of Diplomacy between the United States and Cuba."
I interviewed Kornbluh in Washington about a range of issues related to Cuba. See a 4-minute excerpt of the interview in which he discusses Cuba and the Kennedy assassination 50 years after it occurred.