Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ex-hijacker's plea being revised

The next hearing in the case of ex-hijacker William Potts is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Thursday in the Fort Lauderdale Division of U.S. District Court.
During a hearing in the case on Tuesday, lawyers in the case asked to postpone the proceedings because they wanted to revise an as-yet-undisclosed plea agreement between Potts and the government.
I had trouble finding the latest records in the case the other day, but now have located them, below:

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ex-hijacker's court records vanish (updated)

Screenshot showing no record for Potts' case by name.
The electronic case file for ex-hijacker William Potts has suddenly vanished. I searched for the latest records in Pacer, also known as Public Access to Court Electronic Records, and found nothing today.
Potts had hearings scheduled today, so I wanted to see if any records had been filed in his case.
April 30 update: I found the records... All is well in the land of Pacer.

Monday, April 28, 2014

#CubaNow shields donors from attack

Ricardo "Ric" Herrera
The leader of a new advocacy group called #CubaNow declined on Monday to name its private donors, saying it wanted to spare them from personal attacks.
Ricardo Herrero also declined to give any details on his group's finances. He would not reveal, for instance, the cost of #CubaNow's ad campaign that debuted Monday. But after a reporter suggested that #CubaNow isn't likely to match the resources of the influential pro-embargo U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, Herrero shot back:
We are certainly not outgunned financially.
#CubaNow said its ad campaign was aimed at pressuring President Obama to change U.S. policy toward Cuba. The group said its campaign:
...comes almost exactly five years to the day since President Obama first took steps to allow greater contact between Cuban-Americans and their friends and families in Cuba, helping usher in more change in that time than had been seen in the previous fifty years. #CubaNow is launching with the mission of informing, connecting and inspiring a new conversation around those changes and advocating for practical and effective policy solutions that empower individuals to serve as catalysts for meaningful change in Cuba.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Ex-hijacker charged with kidnapping

New charge
Prosecutors are now charging ex-hijacker William Potts with kidnapping, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
They had originally charged Potts with air piracy, which has a minimum mandatory sentence of 20 years.
On April 25, U.S. Attorney Wilfredo A. Ferrer filed the new charge - known as a "superseding information." It replaces the air piracy charge filed in 1985.
The superseding information reads:
The United States Attorney charges that:
On or about March 27, 1984, in Miami-Dade County, in the Southern District of Florida, and elsewhere, while aboard an aircraft within the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, the defendant 
a/k/a "William Freeman,"
a/k/a "Lt. Spartacus," 
did unlawfully seize, confine, and hold for reward and otherwise the flight crew and passengers of Piedmont Airlines flight number 451 by threatening to blow up the flight for the purpose of diverting the flight from Miami, Florida, to Havana, Cuba, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1201(a)(3).
I don't know what led to the new charge. Prosecutors may believe kidnapping is easier to prove than air piracy. They may be stepping up the pressure on Potts, threatening him with life in prison rather than 20 years.
Whatever the case, Potts has told me he doesn't believe he should have to do any more prison time.
He had hoped that the Cuban government would welcome him as a fellow comrade in 1984. Instead they threw him in jail, where he spent at least 13 1/2 years.
Potts will be told of the kidnapping charge during an arraignment hearing scheduled for 11 a.m. April 29 in the U.S. Attorney's Fort Lauderdale Division.
A change of plea hearing is set for 2:30 p.m. the same day. That hearing had been scheduled for May 2 but was moved to April 29.
Prosecutors had until 2 p.m. today to send any plea offers to the court.
According to the FBI:
Potts was indicted in the Southern District of Florida in 1985 after diverting a Piedmont Airlines passenger aircraft to Havana, Cuba, as the aircraft was approaching Miami International Airport. According to court documents, Potts threatened to blow up the airplane and shoot passengers if the plane landed in Miami. The pilot diverted the aircraft and landed in Havana, Cuba. After the plane landed in Havana, Cuban authorities boarded and escorted Potts off the plane. Potts remained in Cuba until his return to Miami on November 6, 2013.

Friday, April 25, 2014

USAID: For our eyes only

Social Impact Inc. founders Pat Hanscom, left, with her husband Rolf Sartorius. Photo: Washington Post
The U.S. Agency for International Development has set aside more than $5 million for audits, reviews and evaluations of its Cuba programs since 2010.
USAID hasn't made any of the reports public. The agency carefully guards information about its Cuba programs. Taxpayers who finance the multibillion-dollar agency usually learn details about the programs only when there are leaks, lawsuits or investigations, such as the April 3 Associated Press report that disclosed that USAID had financed ZunZuneo, the so-called Cuban Twitter.
Lawmakers requested more information about ZunZuneo on April 8 after USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said he didn't know who came up with the idea for the project.
Perhaps lawmakers should consider requesting copies of some of the audits that have been done in recent years so that they can gain a broader perspective on the agency's work in Cuba.
Below are some references to such reviews I found in federal records. This isn't a comprehensive list.
Contractor: Social Impact Inc., 2300 Clarendon Blvd #1000, Arlington, Va. (See Washington Post story about company).
Description of job: Monitoring and evaluation services, USAID/Latin America and the Caribbean/Cuba. Funding for two-year base period.
Amount: $1,233,874.40. Contract allows for extension and additional $548,757.70.
Date: Sept. 30, 2013 to Sept. 29, 2015 or Aug. 1, 2016 if contract extended. (See contract information).

Thursday, April 24, 2014

William Potts still angry

A field near the José Martí International Airport
In an April 18 letter, ex-hijacker William Potts complains of racial discrimination and announces he plans to sue the U.S. Attorney.
Such a lawsuit, he contends, "would take the fight to them live and in color on CNN rather than simply be herded like a steer in the stockyard of a meat processing plant."
Intent to file a lawsuit isn't news. A lot of people announce such intentions and never follow through. In any case, I am posting Potts' letter here for the record.
Potts, a former member of the Black Panther Party, hijacked a plane to Cuba in 1984. Back then, he was a black militant known as Lieutenant Spartacus or William Freeman. These days, he's being held at the Main Jail in Fort Lauderdale. He wrote the letter shortly after we spoke by phone.
Since then, he has agreed to plead guilty, evidently as part of a likely plea bargain with prosecutors.
A change of plea hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. May 2 before U.S. District Court Judge Robin S. Rosenbaum in Fort Lauderdale.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Deal expected in ex-hijacker's case

William Potts
William Potts, who hijacked a plane to Cuba in 1984, is expected to change his plea to guilty, according to a court order signed today.
A change of plea hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. May 2 before U.S. District Court Judge Robin S. Rosenbaum in Fort Lauderdale.
Potts was a fugitive in Cuba for years before surrendering to U.S. authorities in November. His initial plea was not guilty. Now, though, it appears he'll change his plea to guilty as part of a plea bargain with the government.
Prosecutors have until April 30 to submit such an agreement to the court.
A calendar call set for 12:30 p.m. Wednesday has been cancelled.

No Commotion in Cuba yet

Wireless routers are part of the Commotion network in Sayada. Photo: New York Times
A surveillance-resistant tool called Commotion is not yet operational in Cuba, the U.S. Agency for International Development told the New York Times.
The Open Technology Institute created Commotion, an open-source tool that would allow democracy activists in Cuba and other nations to build independent wireless networks. I wrote about it in March 2013 (See "Cuba likely target for mesh network").
Mesh networks, originally designed for military applications, allow activists to operate independent of central authorities' communication infrastructure.
The Times said the U.S. government sees its mesh network in Sayada, Tunisia, "as a test of the concept before it is deployed in more contested zones."
In September 2012, USAID gave the New America Foundation $4.3 million for a three-year Cuba project. OTI is part of the foundation.
USAID spokesman Matt Herrick told the Times:
We are reviewing the program, and it is not operational in Cuba at this time. No one has traveled to Cuba for this grant.

Monday, April 21, 2014

ZunZuneo: Barely wet

A drop in the bucket. Photo: Wikipedia
The U.S. government reportedly spent $1.6 million on ZunZuneo, the so-called Cuban Twitter. But it isn't the amount that some people find troubling - it's the idea. American University Professor William LeoGrande said:
The problem is that the U.S. doesn’t think the law needs to be respected. It offends Cuba’s sense of sovereignty that the United States acts like its laws don’t matter.
LeoGrande and others gathered April 16 in Washington, D.C., and discussed ZunZuneo and other U.S. government-financed programs in Cuba. Capital News Service quoted Cuban Second Secretary Alexander Rodriguez Salazar as saying:
USAID is illegal in Cuba. Anything USAID does in Cuba is illegal because their sole presence in Cuba is not permitted.
USAID, or the U.S. Agency for International Development, operated ZunZuneo from 2010 to 2012. Democracy activists defend the project. They suggest that the ends justify the means. And they dismiss arguments about Cuban sovereignty, saying the socialist government has no legitimacy.
USAID began working in Cuba without the socialist government's permission in the 1990s. Some $240 million later, the Cuban government remains in power.

Top 100 federal contractors

None of U.S. government's top 100 contractors is doing democracy work in Cuba. Defense contractors top the list.
The chart shows the contractors and dollar amounts for fiscal year 2013. The total amount obligated: $255 billion - $255,638,114,404.58, to be exact.
The state of California grabbed more than a billion of that, and the government of Canada, more than $566 million, according to the Federal Data Procurement System. See Excel chart.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Uncle Sam wants to train Cuban "bizneros"

The U.S. government is looking for companies that might be able to teach Cubans a thing or two about entrepreneurship.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington, D.C., issued a notice asking if any firms are capable of "developing and producing specialized Spanish language multimedia programming specifically designed for broadcast to Cuba."
The BBG, which oversees Radio and TV Martí, says it is "most interested in firms that have produced programming for broadcast to Cuba focusing on entrepreneurship (i.e., how to start a business, examples of successful small businesses that have been created through personal initiative, etc.), and profiles of well-known artistic persons or groups living in Cuba."
While some people might think that it's peculiar that a broadcasting company teach would-be entrepreneurs, Radio and TV Martí is no ordinary media company. Its stated mission is to:
to promote freedom and democracy by providing the people of Cuba with objective news and information programming.
I suppose that training bizneros, as Cuban entrepreneurs are known in Spanglish, fits loosely under the category of "news and information."
No doubt, some bizneros will be star pupils, with some outshining their instructors. (See 2003 story about Cubans' uncanny ability to invent and overcome).

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Posada Carriles court transcripts

Three years ago this month, former CIA operative Luis Posada Carriles, now 85, was acquitted on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and immigration fraud.
For journalists, scholars and others interested in his case, I'm posting here more than 700 pages of transcripts from Posada Carriles' trial in El Paso, Texas.
The transcripts cover only a fraction of the 13-week trial, but offer a window into the proceedings, which drew national media attention.
Orlando Bosch, left, with Luis Posada Carriles in Miami.
Cuban authorities regard Posada Carriles and Bosch to be "terrorists," but they are considered freedom fighters to many in the Cuban exile community in South Florida.

Ex-hijacker slams public defender

William Potts
For weeks, William Potts waited behind bars in South Florida while the State Department produced documents about his crime, the 1984 hijacking of a commercial airliner to Cuba.
Finally, more than 1,000 pages of documents arrived. Potts began going through them. One line  jumped off the page:
The Office of the U.S. Attorney says that it is willing to work with Mr. Potts to resolve the issue and to recommend that he be given credit for prison time he has served in Cuba.
As Potts sees it, that line means he shouldn't have to do any additional jail time now that he has turned himself in to U.S. authorities. And, in a letter to Along the Malecón, he said he was thrilled to find the document. But he said his lawyer, Robert Berube, didn't have the same reaction.
I asked this man who is supposed to be defending me if he had read any of the documents obtained by the court. He hadn't, although his office had sent them to me 10 days ago. 
I pointed out to my "defender" that I had been sitting in a prison cell, the result of 2 continuances (45 days each one) waiting for the arrival of these lawyer doesn't even bother to read them.
Potts said Berube, an assistant federal public defender, told him the document was "irrelevant." I sent Berube an email today requesting his point of view and have not heard from him.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Security clearance: Discreetly secret

Discretion required
Administrative assistants in the Cuban Affairs Office in Washington, D.C., have many duties. They handle incoming phone calls and greet visitors. They keep the office director's schedule, make travel arrangements and prepare briefing books.
Their government security clearance is not "discreet."
It's "secret." (See job description).
Secrecy surrounds many of the U.S. government's democracy projects in Cuba, including ZunZuneo, the so-called Cuban Twitter.
Alan Gross
DAI, the contractor that hired Alan Gross to set up Internet hotspots in Cuba, maintained a "suite" inside its corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Md., where secret matters were discussed. But they evidently didn't let Gross inside the suite without an escort.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Document: Prosecutor "willing to work with" ex-hijacker

Prosecutor wanted to "resolve the issue"
Federal prosecutors in 1997 were prepared to recommend that ex-hijacker William Potts receive credit for time served in Cuba if he turned himself in to U.S. authorities, a diplomatic note shows. The document states:
In the case of Mr. Potts, the Interests Section has been advised by the Office of U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida that there is an outstanding warrant for his arrest on the charge of air piracy. The Office of the U.S. Attorney says that it is willing to work with Mr. Potts to resolve the issue and to recommend that he be given credit for prison time he has served in Cuba. (See documents).
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 - whether he cooperates with authorities, for instance - could improve his chances of going free sooner.
Potts is being held at the Main Jail in Fort Lauderdale. His trial is set for April 28. He said he hopes that American authorities will not give him additional jail time. He has been in custody since surrendering to U.S. officials in November.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Victims' families: Don't trade for Alan Gross

Below is a statement from relatives of the four Brothers to the Rescue pilots killed in the 1996 shoot-down of their aircraft
We the families of the three American citizens and one American resident shot down over international waters by the Cuban government on February 24, 1996, strongly oppose any exchange of Gerardo Hernandez for Alan Gross, Cuba's hostage.

Hernandez is currently serving two life sentences in US prison. One of these is for conspiracy to commit murder in the Feb. 24, 1996, shoot down murders of Carlos Costa, Armando Alejandre, Jr., Mario de la Peña and Pablo Morales. Hernandez’s sentences were affirmed by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the US Supreme Court declined to review them. He has received all benefits available from the US justice system.

Secrets "R" Us

Source: Federal audits and other documents
The non-profit International Republican Institute, or IRI, has managed more than $15 million in Cuba-related projects since 1996.
In October 2011, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for information about a tiny chunk of that - a $750,000 program called "Breaking the Information Blockade."
Two years later, the State Department sent me a batch of heavily censored documents.
The July 14, 2006, executive summary of IRI's project proposal is redacted. The next page gives some background, describing the "information blockade" in place in Cuba since the early 1960s. The documents reads, in part:
Dissidents in Cuba who work to break the information blockade are limited by the repressive tactics of the Castro regime and its sympathizers, as well as by the Cuban government's restrictions on travel in and out of Cuba. Thus, most successful efforts at breaking the information blockade have required the support of the Cuban exile community, foreign governments and international NGOs.

Alan Gross: Malice in U.S.-Cuba relations

Alan Gross
Jailed American Alan Gross told his lawyer, Scott Gilbert, that his hunger strike is over.
My protest fast is suspended as of today, although there will be further protests to come. There will be no cause for further intense protest when both governments show more concern for human beings and less malice and derision toward each other.
Gilbert said in a statement that family and friends were worried about Gross's health. His mother, who turns 92 next week, asked him to give up his hunger strike.
Gross has been jailed in Cuba for more than four years.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

ZunZuneo, the real thing

An emerald humingbird in Cuba. Photo: Wikipedia

Alan Gross "feeling totally betrayed"

Alan Gross has been in a Cuban jail since December 2009. He was infuriated to learn that USAID launched the controversial ZunZuneo project after his arrest. Now he's refusing to eat.
Judy Gross
His wife Judy announced his hunger strike Tuesday on Facebook. She wrote:
Finally out of desperation Alan has started a hunger strike after feeling totally betrayed that our government continued on with another Cuba program while he was(is) still in jail. He also feels betrayed by the Government of Cuba who have not kept their word on some of their promises. Please pray for his health.

Senator: ZunZuneo not a "cockamamie idea"

Sen. Robert Menendez. Photo: Associated Press
Below is a statement from U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who spoke today at a hearing called “International Development Priorities in the FY 2015 Budget" in Washington, D.C.
Menendez is chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Sitting before him at the hearing was Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.
Administrator Shah, welcome back to the Committee.

You come at a time when USAID is making headlines for, in my mind, doing nothing more than the job you were appointed to do.

Let me say for the record: When it comes to the issue of Cuba or your work in any closed society, I do not believe that USAID’s actions – as clearly articulated in your mission statement – to promote “resilient, democratic societies that are able to realize their potential” are, in any way, a “cockamamie idea.”

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ex-hijacker's startling confession

Letter from a hijacker
William Potts, awaiting trial for hijacking a plane to Cuba in 1984, says he is terrified of flying and haunted by the March 8 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
In a letter to Along the Malecón, Potts wrote:
Now approaching what appears to be the end of this "odesia" (Spanish is so much simpler) sitting here now in my North American cell, offers me a relentless and ever expanding opportunity to reflect back on the "chapters and scenes of all the places I've been." (The hijacking and its aftermath).
But really I just want to forget it and get on with my life. Years ago after I had completed my sentence and was embarking on raising a family, amidst my increasing joy, paradoxically enough, I fell into a deep depression that was extremely difficult for me to shake.
I was horrified by images of plane crashes that would arise unbiddened into my mind, and I became terrorized at the thought that I could have provoked such a terrible thing.

$2.2 milliion: Not for Fidel

Camp Delta. Photo: Wikipedia
One U.S. government agency has sent more than $2 million to Cuba since 2011. Dissidents didn't get the money and neither did the Castro brothers.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs delivered the money to soldiers stationed at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, federal records show. Here's the breakdown:

  • Veterans compensation for service-related disability: $1,409,514
  • Post-9/11 veterans educational assistance: $538,895
  • All-volunteer force educational assistance: $218,950
  • Veterans dependency and indemnity compensation for service-connected death: $29,525
  • Vocational rehabilitation for disabled veterans: $10,918
  • Other: $17,876

Total: $2,225,678

Lawmaker: Foes of USAID have "political agenda"

(WASHINGTON) – U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman of the Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, made the following statement during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing titled: “U.S. Foreign Assistance in FY 2015: What Are the Priorities, How Effective?” Statement by Ros-Lehtinen:

“Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Thank you Dr. Shah. I would like to give you an opportunity to clarify some press reports about the Cuban twitter program. First, was the program covert and top secret? Second, does USAID implement similar programs aimed at increasing the free flow of information throughout the world in closed societies? Third, will USAID remain committed to reaching out to people suffering under closed societies and dictatorships?

Thank you Dr. Shah. So contrary to what the media have reported, the democracy programs for Cuba are transparent, they are open. The Cuba democracy program with its $20 million dollars price tag, in fact, is one of the most scrutinized programs in our foreign aid portfolio. The real question here is why does the press and some in our Congressional family demonize these programs?

When secrecy backfires

Barbra Streisand's palatial estate
USAID tried to keep its ZunZuneo project secret. That made the revelations about the project much more explosive. And now more people know about ZunZuneo than ever.
This is known as the Streisand effect. Wikipedia calls it:
The phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet.
Mike Masnick of Techdirt came up with the term, named for singer Barbra Streisand after she tried to block publication of aerial photos of her Malibu estate in 2003.

USAID unleashes a whopper

The Agency for International Development was right to call out the Associated Press for purported inaccuracies in its investigative report about ZunZuneo.
USAID's "Eight Facts about ZunZuneo" questions key details in the AP story. The agency flatly denies, for instance, that a Spanish shell company was involved and that funds were earmarked for Pakistan to hide the money trail.
"Eight Facts" makes some convincing arguments and the AP ought to respond and set the record straight.
But one statement in "Eight Facts" struck me as a preposterous lie. USAID spokesman Matt Herrick wrote:
We welcome tough journalism – and we embrace it. It makes our programs better.
I don't think USAID welcomes tough journalism at all. Other than acknowledging receipt, the agency hasn't even responded to a half dozen Freedom of Information Act requests that I filed in 2011.
I asked for information about Cuba programs run by six organizations, including Creative Associates International, the contractor behind ZunZuneo; and DAI, the company that sent Alan Gross to Cuba.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Who created ZunZuneo? USAID chief doesn't know

Rajiv Shah, left, and Patrick J. Leahy
In a heated exchange with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy on Tuesday, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said he didn't know who came up with the idea for the ZunZuneo project in Cuba.
Leahy had pressed Shah.
"Who's idea was it?" he demanded during a budget hearing in Washington, D.C.
Shah tried to avoid the question and referred to his talking points.
Leahy cut him off repeatedly.
"It's a simple question," said the senator, raising his voice.
Finally, Shah said, "I do not, specifically."
Asked if ZunZuneo was a covert operation, Shah replied, "Absolutely not."
Shah said the project was included in the agency's congressional budget justification, which indicated USAID was pursuing programs to increase the free flow of information to Cuba using new digital methods.
Leahy said there was so much "bureaucratese" in the budget justification, it would be impossible for anyone to know that a program such as ZunZuneo existed.

ZunZuneo, then Piramideo. How about Firechat?

Some free apps might work as well or better in Cuba than the ones that the U.S. government spends millions of dollars to develop.
Take, for instance, Firechat, developed by a tech start-up called Open Garden. The app is new and already has 3 million users.
The Associated Press said Firechat:
...harnesses a technology called wireless mesh networking, which might someday allow a myriad of devices to connect like links in a chain. (See related story: "Cuba may be target for mesh network").
The technique might someday be used to tie together thousands of devices with built-in radios and make it possible to be online without having to pay for the access. It could also enable online communications in remote areas or disaster zones without Wi-Fi or cellular signals. Furthermore, the conversations in these so-called "off-the-grid" networks can't be easily hacked into by spies and mischief makers or shut down by governments trying to stifle free speech.

Alan Gross launches hunger strike

Alan Gross. Photo: James L. Berenthal/AP
American development worker Alan Gross announced today that he has begun a hunger strike to draw attention to his jailing, according to the New York Times. Gross said in a statement:
I am fasting to object to mistruths, deceptions, and inaction by both governments, not only regarding their shared responsibility for my arbitrary detention, but also because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal.
The Times also reported that Gross's lawyer, Scott Gilbert, criticized USAID for its ZunZuneo project in Cuba. The agency "should have known that the effort could threaten Mr. Gross’s safety," the newspaper said.

Showdown over Cuba policy

Scene from the 1957 movie, "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral"
Sen. Bob Menéndez, D-N.J., gave a major speech on Cuba Monday, making a case for continued sanctions. He said:
We can never turn our back on what has happened and continues to happen in Cuba! We can never wink-and-nod, and say: It’s been 50 years, that’s long enough, things are changing for the better in Cuba, so we should ease sanctions.

I say – NO! – No, we should not ease sanctions. We should not let up. We should not reward the Castro regime for its human rights violations. 
The debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba is highly polarized. Some of those who oppose sanctions may get their chance to throw in their two cents today.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Our farmer in Havana?

A Kubota tractor
American diplomats in Cuba paid $15,293.72 for a tractor suitable for cultivating vegetables and melons, but not potatoes.
The U.S. Interests Section in Havana bought the tractor from Gatorland Kubota in Gainesville, Fla., records show.
Other Interests Section curiosities include:
  • $6,665.25 to install "sanitary hardware." Vendor: Unidentified. Date: March 31, 2014. Could this be George Costanza's dream toilet?
  • $4,503.72 to refill an empty pool in an annex building. Vendor: An unidentified and presumably Cuban company. Date: Dec. 17, 2013.
  • $13,086 for urgent request of seasonal influenza vaccine for 2013 and 2014. See records here and here. Vendor: TQM Inc. in St. Charles, Mo. Dates: Nov. 8 and Nov. 26, 2013.
See PDF containing more than $1.8 million in Cuba expenses by USAID and State Department.

New Cuba grants: $4 million up for grabs

The State Department is looking for contractors to carry out $4 million in democracy programs targeting Cuba.
Grants range in value from $500,000 to $1.5 million.
Contractors must submit statements of interest by April 18. Both non-profit and for-profit companies are eligible.
Excerpts of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor announcement are below:
  • Advocating for Rule of Law and Human Rights should emphasize creating opportunities for professional capacity building and engagement, such as targeted training sessions, internships, short-term fellowships, or participation in international events or professional organizations.

USAID: Eight Facts About ZunZuneo

USAID spokesman Matt Herrick posted the following statement on Monday:
On Thursday, April 3, the Associated Press published an article on a social media program in Cuba funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The article contained significant inaccuracies and false conclusions about ZunZuneo, which was part of a broader effort that began in 2009 to facilitate “twitter like” communication among Cubans so they could connect with each other on topics of their choice. Many of the inaccuracies have been re-reported by other news outlets, perpetuating the original narrative, or worse. 
The article suggested that USAID spent years on a “covert” program to gather personal information to be used for political purposes to “foment” “smart mobs” and start a “Cuban spring” to overthrow the Cuban government. It makes for an interesting read, but it’s not true.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Another network for Cubans: Piramideo

Image taken from Piramideo's Facebook page
Hat tip to the ever-alert Emilio Ichikawa for noticing Radio & TV Martí's new statement on Piramideo, a social network for mobile phone users in Cuba.
I wonder if Piramideo is somehow connected to the Broadcasting Board of Governors' dealings with Washington Software Inc., in Germantown, Md.
Contract records show that the BBG, which oversees Radio & TV Martí, has paid Washington Software more than $3.2 million since 2011.
Los Martí's statement said:
Piramideo is a communication platform that Radio and TV Martí and, known as Los Martí, offer their audience and was created because of Cubans' need to communicate freely. 
Piramideo is a social communication network that allows Cubans on the island to communicate through text messages, without censorship or filters. 
It is a priority of Los Martí to ensure the privacy and efficiency of the transmission of text messages sent through Piramideo.

Friday, April 4, 2014

ZunZuneo and other "discreet" adventures (revised)

ZunZuneo's Facebook page had recorded 293 "likes" when I checked it yesterday.
Since then, that number has soared, despite the fact that the so-called "Cuban Twitter" is now defunct.
To be sure, ZunZuneo has plenty of supporters. Boosting the free flow of information in Cuba is a noble goal. I'd never argue with that.
What some people are debating is  how the U.S. Agency for International Development managed the project and whether the U.S. government should interfere with Cuba's internal affairs.
USAID hired a private, for-profit company called Creative Associates International to oversee ZunZuneo, according to an April 3 report by the Associated Press. The story said:
The money that Creative Associates spent on ZunZuneo was publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan, government data show.
A Denver company called Mobile Accord assisted Creative Associates. On Thursday, I found Mobile Accord's contracts for work in Pakistan and jumped to the conclusion that they were connected to ZunZuneo. Earlier today, I suggested that federal officials might have written "any old BS" in contract records to hide the Cuba connection. I was wrong. A Mobile Accord spokesman told me today that there were two separate contracts. He said:
We can confirm that the Pakistan and Cuba projects were entirely separate.
Only Mobile Accord's Pakistan agreement appears in the Federal Procurement Data System, FPDS. If anyone has details on the contract related to Cuba, please let me know and I'll post the information here.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Mobile Accord, ZunZuneo and Pakistan

Mobile Accord's Pakistan contract wasn't linked to Cuba, a company spokesman said.
The Associated Press produced a great investigative piece on ZunZuneo, a Cuban Twitter aimed at undermining the socialist government.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, managed the project. Creative Associates International was the contractor and Denver-based Mobile Accord Inc. was one of the subcontractors.
Mobile Accord's $1.69 million contract with USAID called for "short message service support to be provided to displaced people in the northwest frontier of Pakistan."
Instead, Mobile Accord developed ZunZuneo.

Some of the work on the project took place in Costa Rica, where Creative Associates International had set up a secret base.
At first I thought Mobile Accord's Pakistan contract was somehow connected to the company's Cuba work. A Mobile Accord spokesman confirmed to me that there were two separate contracts. For more information, please see "ZunZuneo and other 'discreet' adventures."