Wednesday, December 31, 2014

U.S. urges Cuba to allow free expression

Below is what the State Department said on Tuesday about Cuban authorities' arrest of activists who planned to take part in an open microphone event at the Plaza de la Revolución:
We are deeply concerned about the latest reports of detentions and arrests by Cuban authorities of peaceful civil society members and activists, including Luis Quintana Rodriguez, Antonio Rodiles, Danilo Maldonado, Reinaldo Escobar, Marcelino Abreu Bonora and Eliecer Avila. We strongly condemn the Cuban government’s continued harassment and repeated use of arbitrary detention, at times with violence, to silence critics, disrupt peaceful assembly and freedom expression, and intimidate citizens.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Yo También Exijo

Cuban artist Tania Bruguera has invited Cubans to gather Tuesday at the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana to speak before an open microphone (See press release).
Bruguera, born in Havana in 1968, is a performance and installation artist. One novel past performance involved her covering herself in raw meat.
In 2009, she staged an open microphone event in Havana that angered Cuban officials. Speakers at that event included blogger Yoani Sanchez.
Below is Bruguera's letter explaining what she hopes accomplish on Tuesday:

Dear Cubans,

Following the news of December 17th that stirred our Nation, I sent a letter to the Cuban newspaper, Granma (which, of course, was not published). After its publication by other press media, a group of Cuban citizens with no party affiliation reacted to a phrase in this letter that calls all Cubans to gather next December 30th at La Plaza to speak out at an open microphone.

They have created the platform #YoTambienExijo ( to which they have invited me, and so far, it has added more 1000 persons with the common purpose of making real what was kind of a metaphor in my letter or maybe an unconscious desire that slipped out of my mind due to that day's commotion.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

$11 million in Cuba grants up for grabs

U.S. Interests Section, in the background
The State Department on Wednesday announced that it is looking for U.S.- or foreign-based organizations interested in running programs aimed at boosting civil, political and labor rights in Cuba.
The department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor expects to award up to $11 million in grants, ranging from $500,000 to $2 million each.
Statements of interest from organizations hoping to receive funds are due Feb. 5, 2015.
The bureau's announcement says it will give priority to proposals that "emphasize the role of Cuban partners in developing and achieving programmatic objectives."
Perhaps that language was added in light of the Obama administration's Dec. 17 decision to pursue diplomatic relations with Cuba.
See the full announcement here.
Excerpts are below:
The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) announces a Request for Statements of Interest (RSOI) from organizations interested in submitting Statements of Interest (SOI) outlining programs that will foster civil, political, and labor rights in Cuba.
DRL invites organizations to submit SOIs for programs that promote internationally-recognized individual, civil, political, and labor rights - as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements - in Cuba.
The Cuban government fails to respect freedom of speech and the press, restricts internet access, maintains a monopoly on political power and media outlets, circumscribes academic freedom, and maintains some restrictions on the ability of religious groups to meet and worship. The government refuses to recognize non-governmental human rights groups or permit them to function legally.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cubans cheer start of new era

I have been swamped today writing stories about renewed ties between the U.S. and Cuba, but wanted to post a few photos I shot today.
Above, students from Raul Roa Garcia Institute of International Relations in Havana marched in the streets, cheering the return of three Cuban spies held in the U.S.
School children and others came out to watch the marchers.

Former U.S. congressmen Mike Kopetski, in Havana for a conference, joined the students.

Workers at the Cuban Foreign Ministry peer down at the marchers.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

BBG seeks web-saavy journalism instructors

The Broadcasting Board of Governors is seeking trainers who can teach mobile reporting, data journalism, use of social media, how to "webify" TV and radio scripts, and multimedia skills.
The contractor will train BBG employees in Washington, D.C., and at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting in Miami.
Dec. 15 appears to be the application deadline, according to
See additional details here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wanted: A Bullpen Boss

This job ad for a "bullpen" supervisor caught my eye:
USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives is seeking highly motivated, highly qualified individuals who want the opportunity to help support rapid international transition programs for priority conflict-prone countries. Created in 1994 as a distinct operating unit within USAID, OTI helps local partners advance peace and democracy in politically-transitioning countries. Seizing critical windows of opportunity, OTI works on the ground to provide fast, flexible, short-term assistance targeted at key transition needs.
Applicants must be U.S. citizens who are able to obtain a "SECRET" security clearance.
Here's background on OTI, which has worked in Cuba:
Countries experiencing a significant political transition in the midst of a disaster or emerging from civil conflict have unique needs that cannot be fully addressed by traditional disaster relief. Timely and effective assistance to promote and consolidate peaceful, democratic advances can make the difference between a successful or a failed transition. OTI assists in securing peace by aiding indigenous, mostly non-governmental, civil society and media organizations.

A trillion here, a trillion there

Omnibus Appropriations bill
Congressional leaders late Tuesday came up with a $1.014 trillion spending plan for the 2015 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30 (see 1,067-page bill).
Lawmakers slipped hundreds of so-called "riders" into the bill. These are policy instructions telling federal agencies how to spend the money. Some of the riders are related to Cuba.
The 2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill, if approved by the House and Senate, would authorize spending:
  • $2,632,529,000 in so-called "Economic Support Funds," money that would be available until Sept. 30, 2016. The bill states: "Funds appropriated by this Act under the heading 'Economic Support Fund' should be made available for programs in Cuba."
  • $130,500,000 toward the "Democracy Fund," to be used "for the promotion of democracy globally." Of the total, $75,500,000 would go to the Human Rights and Democracy Fund of the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and $55,000,000 would be steered to the U.S. Agency for International Development's Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance.

Human Rights Day

Human Rights Day is Dec. 10
Today is Human Rights Day. This year's theme is that "every day is Human Rights Day."
The idea is that "...each one of us, everywhere, at all times is entitled to the full range of human rights, that human rights belong equally to each of us and bind us together as a global community with the same ideals and values," according to United Nations General Assembly, which created Human Rights Day in 1950.
Complaints about the human rights situation in Cuba are a cornerstone of U.S. policy toward the socialist government. The State Department's 2013 report on human rights in Cuba states:
The principal human rights abuses were abridgement of the right of citizens to change the government and the use of government threats, extrajudicial physical violence, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly.
Download full report here.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Most Cuba funds go toward civil society

Total: $13,871,004. Source: Foreign Assistance Dashboard
The U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department are expected to spend $59.3 million on Cuba programs in fiscal years 2013 through 2015.
The Foreign Assistance Dashboard website shows how $13,871,004 was spent in fiscal years 2013 and 2014, which covers Oct. 1, 2012, to Sept. 30, 2014.
Most of the money - 71 percent - went to support Cuban civil society, according to the dashboard.
The dashboard, unveiled in 2012, is a joint project of the Department of State and USAID. The government says it operates under the guidance of National Security staff and shows "where U.S. foreign aid is invested."
Total: $9,777,726
Nine organizations received funding. The top three were the New America Foundation, the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, and the Pan American Development Foundation.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Former USAID chief: Congressional oversight lacking

Andrew Natsios
Here's an interesting 11-minute video tracing the history of USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives, which celebrated its 20-year anniversary in October.
Interviewees discussed challenges facing the agency. Andrew Natsios, a former USAID administrator who is now director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at Texas A&M University, said:
There are 10 oversight committees in the United States Congress that oversee USAID. They don't even talk to each other. They fight with each other all the time.
The effect of this is to depress innovation. Anybody does anything that fails, their career is over.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Another "window of opportunity" for OTI?

Has OTI launched another Cuba project?
At least three companies that have carried out democracy projects in Cuba have been awarded contracts as part of a $2.5 billion U.S. government campaign to help promote political change in countries around the world.
A little-known agency known as the Office of Transition Initiatives, or OTI, is leading the effort. It is a branch of the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.
Here's how a 2009 Congressional Research Service report described OTI:
Unlike its counterparts at USAID, its mission is neither humanitarian nor development-oriented. OTI’s activities are overtly political, based on the idea that in the midst of political crisis and instability abroad there are local agents of change whose efforts, when supported by timely and creative U.S. assistance, can tip the balance toward peaceful and democratic outcomes that advance U.S. foreign policy objectives.
USAID announced early this year that nine companies had been awarded contracts under an in-house OTI contracting mechanism called Support Which Implements Fast Transitions, or SWIFT. At least three of the firms have done Cuba projects. They are Creative Associates International Inc., International Relief and Development Inc., and Development Alternatives Inc., or DAI (See list of winners).
DAI is the company that sent development worker Alan Gross to Cuba, a mission that led to his arrest in December 2009.
Creative Associates ran a Cuba program from a secret base in Costa Rica. I wrote about that in November 2012 (See "$11 million for clandestine work in Costa Rica?").
In October 2011, I filed three Freedom of Information Act requests for details about Creative's work in Cuba. More than three years later, USAID has not responded, other than acknowledging receipt of my requests.
In April 2014, an Associated Press investigation revealed that one of Creative's projects was ZunZuneo, a social networking service targeting Cubans.

Friday, December 5, 2014

USAID: More than $2 billion in personal services contracts

Top 10
Below is a list of contractors who signed personal services contracts with the U.S. Agency for International Development during fiscal years 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Fiscal year 2015 runs from Oct. 1, 2014, to Sept. 30, 2015.
The top 10 contracts total $1,859,868,631. Roughly 43 percent of that - $801,930,889 - is listed as miscellaneous or undisclosed. Another 2 percent - $33,483,610 - shows the contractor name as "blank."
The total of all contracts signed is $2,180,855,665.

ContractorAmountNo. of contracts
J & B TRUCK REPAIR SERVICE$142,293,9301041
NO DATA FROM D AND B$8,755,00046

Monday, December 1, 2014

Nearly $4.4 million for message campaign targeting Cuba

Multimillion-dollar campaign targeting Cuba
Washington Software, the contractor hired to flood Cuba with email and text messages, has earned more than $1.2 million in government contracts this year, records show.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG, hired the firm on July 1, 2011. Since then, the BBG has paid the company $4,398,409, according to records found in the Federal Data Procurement System.
The BBG oversees the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which operates Radio & TV Martí in Miami.
The nearly $4.4 million has gone toward such tasks as:

  • Designing and operating a Short Message Service, or SMS, social network.
  • Sending text messages to Cuba via SMS
  • Coming up with ways to prevent the Cuban government from jamming its electronic messages.
  • Programming computers.
  • Sending email blasts.
Washington Software is based in Germantown, Md.