Sunday, October 25, 2015

Mixing academics and activism

Jaime Suchlicki. Photo: YouTube
Cuba On-Line Inc. began in 1999 as a modest $300,000 program to send newsletters to Cuba. It soon blossomed into a $5 million project aimed at reaching out to dissidents and human rights activists and helping to "foster the transition to democracy," according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
University of Miami history professor Jaime Suchlicki led the program, which was financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.
On Oct. 8, 2011, I asked USAID for contracts related to the program. The agency replied on Sept. 30, 2015, sending me 94 pages of documents.
Suchlicki proposed the program on Aug. 27, 1998, the documents show. He called it the Democratic Information Project. It was not his only enterprise. Suchlicki was also - and still is - director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, or ICCAS.
In December 2010, I reported that the U.S. government had given the institute more than $6 million since 2002, according to federal audits. (I wanted to update that number today, but the Federal Audit Clearinghouse was offline and isn't expected to be back up until December. Federal officials took the site down in July after activists linked to the group Anonymous hacked it and posted the phone numbers, usernames and passwords of thousands of users, Federal Times reported.)
Suchlicki received an additional $5,340,000 for Cuba On-Line from 1999 to 2007, contract records show. More details about that are below.
First, a word about Suchlicki. The professor drew some controversy earlier this month when the institute said it had received information that Gen. Leopoldo Cintra Frias, head of the Cuban Armed Forces, had visited Syria and was leading Cuban military personnel in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The institute said:
The Cuban military contingent will be primarily deployed in Syria manning Russian tanks provided to Assad by the Russians. It will also operate as a military force against ISIS and other opponents of the Assad regime.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Dissidents face uphill fight

Danilo "El Sexto" Maldonado
The graffiti artist jailed for 10 months after he painted the names “Fidel” and “Raúl” on two pigs said today he isn’t backing down.
“Art is my life and I can’t breathe without a life,” said Danilo Maldonado, also known as “El Sexto.”
“Of course I’m going to continue doing what I do – rebellious art,” the 32-year-old artist told Along the Malecón.
El Sexto’s release from jail on Oct. 20 was a fleeting victory for democracy activists, but they continue to face intense pressure from Cuba’s security forces.
The number of physical attacks against dissidents and democracy activists in September jumped to 93, from 21 in August, a 342 percent increase, according to the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation in Havana.
Security police also carried out at least 882 arbitrary detentions in September, the highest number since June 2014, the commission reported on Oct. 5.
Ladies in White along Quinta Avenida in Havana
Many of the arrests were aimed at preventing democracy activists from attending events with Pope Francis, who had called for a “revolution of tenderness” while visiting Cuba in September.
“Before and during the visit of Pope Francis, Cuba's government unleashed a veritable wave of political and social repression, with a toll of at least 353 preventive arrests of peaceful dissidents to prevent them from participating in mass rallies with the pope,” the commission said.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Loose ends

U.S. authorities in December freed three spies*, paving the way for a new relationship between the United States and Cuba.
The Obama administration pardoned Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino and they returned to Cuba, where they were welcomed as heroes.
A man who played a key role in the spy ring has yet to be pardoned. He is Juan Pablo Roque, a Cuban agent who hastily returned to the island before the FBI swept in and arrested the other spies.
Juan Pablo Roque
Roque remains a fugitive, unable to travel back to the U.S. for fear of being arrested.
Court records show that Roque, also known as German, has two pending charges:

  • Conspiracy to defraud the United States, and
  • Impersonating agents of foreign governments.

The charges were filed on Sept. 23, 1998. Most of the records in his case file are sealed (see docket).
I wonder what, if anything, will become of the charges against Roque? Should they be thrown out now that the other spies have been freed? Or should Roque remain in limbo?

After this post was published, a reader sent me this email:

You wrote: "U.S. authorities in December freed three spies."
From a legal standpoint this is not accurate. The Cuban 5 did not spy on the US government, rather they spied on private citizens involved in illegal activities. Moreover, the information they gathered was then supplied to the US government.
Here is a definition of what constitutes espionage in the US. Espionage in the US, as defined by law, involves:
Espionage, commonly known as spying, is the practice of secretly gathering information about a foreign government or a competing industry, with the purpose of placing one's own government or corporation at some strategic or financial advantage. Federal law prohibits espionage when it jeopardizes the national defense or benefits a foreign nation (18 U.S.C.A. § 793). Criminal espionage involves betraying U.S. government secrets to other nations.
The whole document can be found here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

U.S. infiltration of El Paquete?

A friend asked me today if I knew who is behind "El Paquete Semanal," the weekly package of movies, TV shows, YouTube videos, songs and news items that are distributed via USB flash drives all over Cuba.
I told him I didn't know.
My friend wondered if Jeff Kline might have - or have had - something to do with El Paquete.
On Sept. 30, 2013, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting gave Kline's Pinyon Foundation a $450,000 contract to produce "self-help videos." Could that be connected to El Paquete? my friend asked.
Kline's LinkedIn profile says he has produced "media and created media distribution inform, inspire and educate." The profile states:
In most cases I have created teams of people from within the cultures being served - Hispanics, Palestinians, etc. who then create their own media within their own cultural context to inspire and empower others to share their own ideas for a positive future based on universal human values...
Is Kline's profile describing El Paquete? my friend asked.
I don't know. But I wonder what became of the purported self-help videos that Kline was going to produce. Has anyone seen them? Do they even exist? Were the videos a cover for another mission?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Cuban satire revised

On Aug. 27, the Broadcasting Board of Governors sent out an appeal for a comedy team with a proven ability to make fun of Cuban politicians and public figures.
The team would produce 10 comedy sketches aimed at skewering Cuba's political elites, no doubt including Fidel Castro and his younger brother, Raúl.
Today, the BBG revised its announcement, making no mention of plans to lampoon public figures in Cuba. Instead, the agency says it wants to "parody events in the daily lives of Cubans on the Island" and "use humor to entertain, engage, educate and enlighten audiences in Cuba."
The BBG oversees Radio & TV Martí. The agency's new announcement said it is seeking a comedy show that would:
provide some lighter fare to go along with the news and information relevant to Cuban’s daily lives provided by the Marti’s in their regular programming.
The show will ideally be 3 segments with accompanying commercial breaks followed by a formal close with a total running time between 26 and 30 minutes. It should also be easily transferrable to online and mobile platforms so fans can consume content in ‘snackable’ short form segments. 
Changing the language of the notice won't satisfy all critics, and the taxpayer-financed shows still may wind up targeting Cuban leaders.
Whatever the case, the BBG's handling of what would seem to be a simple announcement has been erratic.
Update: The BBG revised the announcement on Oct. 22 and again on Oct. 23.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Taxpayer-funded Cuban satire still alive

The U.S. government-financed Broadcasting Board of Governors today re-issued its request for "uniquely funny, ironic, satirical" television shows targeting Cuban officials and other personalities on the island.
The BBG did not explain why it cancelled its original announcement before re-issuing its call for a team able to produce 10 comedy sketches that parody "public figures, politicians, government officials, entertainers, as well as recognizable members of Cuban civil society groups who are active in the political and civil sphere and widely known throughout the Island."
The deadline for proposals is now 2 p.m. Oct. 30. Today's announcement is below:

Solicitation Number:

Notice Type:
Combined Synopsis/Solicitation

Added: Oct 19, 2015 1:49 pm

This solicitation announcement, BBG50-Q-16-1015MD is prepared and posted in accordance with Federal Acquisitions Circular (FAC) 2005-83, Effective 01 Oct 2015. In accordance to FAR Subpart 5.1 is to notify potential Offers for a competitive request for quote, solicitation, issued by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, International Broadcasting Bureau, Voice of America (BBG/IBB/VOA.

Friday, October 16, 2015

GITMO needs air traffic controller

Guantánamo airstrip
The U.S. Navy is looking for a contractor to handle air traffic control, air terminal services and other duties at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. (See specifications).
The Navy's Fleet Logistics Center in Jacksonville is evaluating competitive offers for the job.
Here's what the Navy wants:
The Contractor shall provide operational and logistical support for the U.S. Naval forces, Joint services and tenant commands located at U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Operational and logistical support shall consist of all managerial, supervisory, administrative and technical support; equipment, tools, materials and other items and services, (except as specified within the contract as Government-furnished materials, equipment, facilities, services, and training) and other personnel necessary to accomplish Air Traffic Control Operations, Air Terminal Services, Transient Line Services, Ground Support Equipment Maintenance and Ground Electronics Maintenance Services at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (NSGB). The contractor shall facilitate on-time aircraft departures and maintain the ability to provide sustained Air Terminal and Ground Handling Services (ATGHS) for a working Maximum on Ground (MOG) capability of one (1) wide-body aircraft or the equivalent thereof...

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Cuba Broadcasting staffer wins journalism prize

José Alpizar
Office of Cuba Broadcasting employee José Alpizar has been awarded the David Burke Distinguished Journalism Award, the Broadcasting Board of Governors announced today.
The awards are "for exceptional integrity, bravery, and originality in reporting."
BBG Chairman Jeff Shell said in a statement:
Our 2015 Burke Award winners represent the best of U.S. international media. These brave men and women have tackled issues of critical importance in some of the most dangerous locations on earth.
BBG CEO John Lansing said:
Every day our journalists overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to bring exceptional reporting to audiences in media-restricted countries. It is with honor and humility that we recognize these outstanding individuals who risk their livelihoods to provide accurate, uncensored information to those who need it most.
Below is background on Alpizar's work, according to the BBG:
Strict media controls in Cuba have resulted in the creation of an underground, secret distribution network for uncensored information. The OCB's José Alpizar champions this vital "hand-to-hand" network. Working directly with Marti reporters and producers and with a list of contacts in Cuba yearning for unbiased news, Mr. Alpizar has, in just two years, grown a small DVD duplication program to a complex distribution system that today boasts 15,000 DVDs a month handed out door-to-door and on street corners across Cuba. In addition to DVDs, Mr. Alpizar has led the way to distributing flash drives carrying gigabytes of not just Marti audio and video content, but also information on research and development of WiFi and over-the-air television signal broadcasts inside of Cuba free from government control. With his transmission engineering skills and unwavering dedication, Mr. Alpizar has singlehandedly nurtured a network of dedicated Cuban citizens to disseminate Radio and Television Marti content throughout the island.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Up to $60 million for school at GITMO

Air Force Tech Sgt. Sonya Faucette reads a story to children in a 3rd grade class at W.T. Sampson School. Photo: Army Staff Sgt. Blair Heusdens
The U.S. Navy plans to replace the W.T. Sampson School at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. The school opened in 1931. It is the Department of Defense's oldest overseas school for dependents of U.S. military personnel.
W.T. Sampson School. Photo: Wikipedia
Prospective contractors interested in the job are tentatively scheduled to visit the site on Wednesday. The Navy expects to award the contract around Jan. 31, 2016. Estimated cost: $40 million to $60 million. (See 724-page document showing specifications).
Students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade attend the school.
It is named after Rear Admiral William Thomas Sampson, whose fleet helped prevent Spanish vessels from leaving the harbor of Santiago on June 1, 1898, during the Spanish-American War. Sampson was later named a U.S. commissioner of Cuba.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Eusebio Leal visits historic sites

Eusebio Leal impressed with St. Augustine

Eusebio Leal at the Castillo de San Marcos
Eusebio Leal, the historian who has for decades led efforts to renovate Old Havana, left St. Augustine today and headed to Tampa as part of what he described as a "pilgrimage in memory of Cuba."
Leal, 73, said St. Augustine left him with a "truly extraordinary impression."
The city, the oldest continuously occupied European-founded settlement in the United States, "has been preserved with great love and great detail, with many small details, the beauty of the cultural and heritage legacy of St. Augustine."
St. Augustine, he said, is a place where "the Anglo-Saxon and Hispanic histories come together" along with a trace of indigenous heritage.
Visiting the Nation's Oldest City and other spots in Florida and Louisiana is "a pilgrimage in memory of Cuba because Cuba has profoundly united these lands," he said.
"The bishops of Cuba were also bishops of Florida and Louisiana and that's why there are so many things, things related to Cuba."
Leal spoke at Flagler College on Sunday night, an event that was sponsored by the college’s Public History program and Humanities Department. After his presentation, Leal attended a dinner in his honor and chatted with a variety of personalities, including Flagler College President William T. Abare Jr., Bishop Felipe Estévez and former chief of the U.S. Interests Section John Caulfield.
During an interview today, Leal said highlights of his trip were Flagler College, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine and Tolomato Cemetery.
Roman Catholic priest Felix Varela, who pushed for Cuban self-rule and helped inspire the movement toward Cuban independence, was buried at the cemetery in 1848.
In 1892, Cuban independence leader José Martí visited the cemetery to pay respects to Varela and kneel at the spot where he was buried.
"It's exciting to be at the cemetery where Father Varela was buried for many years," Leal said.
Eusebio Leal at Tolomato Cemetery
The priest's remains were moved to Cuba and reburied in 1911. "He was the true saint of Cubans," the historian said.
Leal also stopped to examine a statue of Varela outside the Cathedral Basilica before stepping into the church, dipping his fingers in holy water and lighting a candle.
Leal is an Ambassador of Good Will of the United Nations and also a deputy to the National Assembly of the Popular Power in Cuba. Asked if visits like his help to bring the United States and Cuba closer together, Leal said that cultural exchange between the two countries is vital. He said:
I am a person of culture, an intellectual. For me, it's very important to live these experiences. My American colleagues have been so kind here. The Americans I've met have only treated me with kindness, friendliness, affection and generosity.
Before leaving St. Augustine, Leal strolled along St. George Street and visited the Castillo de San Marcos, a Spanish fort on Matanzas Bay. He pointed toward the water and said the United States shouldn't have such difficult relations with a country that is so close to its shores. He said:
Cuba is too close for us to be so far apart.
Leal said relations between ordinary people on both sides of the Florida Straits - and especially relations between Cubans and Cuban-Americans - are growing stronger. But, he said:
There's a very big difference in relations between governments and relations between people.
Eusebio Leal examines statue of Padre Felix Varela
The U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic relations this summer after decades of hostility, but both sides acknowledge that relations remain far from "normal."
Asked if the two governments would ever resolve their differences, including U.S. accusations of human rights violations in Cuba, Leal pointed out that the United States is far from perfect.
He said Cuban officials usually don't dwell on America's internal problems.
We decline to speak because we believe it would interfere in issues of American life of which we do not participate, but I would say that I also feel, as does President Obama, deep concern about the things that can happen here, like the other day when at that little school many people died, these young victims of a policy that in my opinion is a mistaken interpretation of the law.
Leal was referring to an Oct. 1 incident at a community college in Oregon where a gunman killed nine people. He said:
The fact that anyone can own guns and can use them against innocent people is a human rights issue of the first order because we are talking about victims. Or when the police act with excessive force is also a human rights violation. When people have no right to study or get an education is also a human rights issue.
Cuban officials only want to be treated fairly, he said.
What we do not want is a selective treatment of Cuba.
Leal was scheduled to speak in Tampa tonight. After visiting Ybor City, a historic neighborhood in Tampa, he planned to travel to Key West and New Orleans.
Disclosure: I work at Flagler College, where I teach journalism classes.

Eusebio Leal at Flagler College

 Eusebio Leal, the Havana city historian, spoke Sunday night at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla. Here is a selection of photos from his visit.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

New hotline to Cuba

DISA headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland
The Defense Information Systems Agency, or DISA, announced Friday that it is looking for contractors interested in establishing a high-speed digital connection from Washington, D.C., to Cuba.
DISA, a combat support agency of the Department of Defense, wants to know what it would cost to set up a T1 line to Cuba.
Details of the agency's request are considered sensitive and are not publicly available.
T1 lines can be made of copper or fiber optic cable. They can carry phone conversations and data. According to How Stuff Works:
If the T1 line is being used for telephone conversations, it plugs into the office's phone system. If it is carrying data it plugs into the network's router.
A T1 line can carry about 192,000 bytes per second -- roughly 60 times more data than a normal residential modem. It is also extremely reliable -- much more reliable than an analog modem. ...a T1 line can generally handle quite a few people. For general browsing, hundreds of users are easily able to share a T1 line comfortably. If they are all downloading MP3 files or video files simultaneously it would be a problem, but that still isn't extremely common.
DISA's request for information about the T1 line does not say whether the connection would be linked to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base or the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
The agency's "Special Mission Areas" includes providing the communications support to the commander-in-chief. So could this new T1 connection be a hotline to Raul Castro? I doubt it.
What do you think? Why does DISA want a new digital link to Cuba?

Friday, October 9, 2015

BBG: $40 million to unnamed contractors

See interactive graphic
The Broadcasting Board of Governors paid $149,344,933 to contractors in fiscal 2015, which ended Sept. 30.
That included $40,553,411 paid to unnamed "miscellaneous foreign contractors," according to the Federal Data Procurement System.
The BBG, based in Washington, D.C., oversees Radio & TV Martí. See the agency's full list of contractors below.

Vendor NameAction Obligation ($)
GALLUP, INC.$3,219,825
HA DESIGN GROUP, L.L.C.$2,811,819
A T AND T CORPORATION (4710)$1,564,051

Thursday, October 8, 2015

USAID contractor's work still a mystery

Four years ago today, I sent a letter to the U.S. International Agency for International Development, asking for information about a program that the Pan American Development Foundation was running in Cuba.
USAID responded the other day, sending me 123 pages of documents related to millions of dollars in PADF spending. Unfortunately, USAID redacted or withheld just about every trace of information that might shed light on just what the the non-profit organization was doing in Cuba.
The documents make reference to several programs, but give no details.
For instance, a Sept. 1, 1998, letter says that USAID gave PADF $236,700 "to provide support for a program in environmental civil society."
USAID redacted the program description.
Guidelines for the award said "no funds or assistance under this cooperative agreement may be provided to the Cuban government."
That makes sense. But the money wasn't for dissidents, either: USAID funding made available under this grant or cooperative agreement will be used for cash assistance to individuals residing in Cuba who are dissidents or victims of political repression or to Cuban democratic or human rights groups.
And it wasn't for the Catholic Church. A November 1998 document states:
At the request of Catholic Church officials in Cuba, no USAID-funded material assistance, direct or indirect, is to be provided to the Catholic Church in Cuba, with the exception of books and other international material. Other exceptions may be authorized if requested in writing by the CARITAS Director in Cuba, but the authorization must acknowledge the assistance is requested from USAID funds.
So whatever happened to that money is a mystery to me.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

USAID contractor submitted questionable expenses

A contractor for the Agency for International Development submitted nearly a quarter million dollars in questionable expenses in 2009 and 2010, according to an audit obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
The contractor, International Republican Institute, or IRI, claimed unsupported costs of $244,856 while running a Cuba program on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the audit said.
The DMP Group, based in Washington, D.C., performed the audit. I asked USAID for copies of DMP audits on March 18, 2011. USAID responded on Sept. 25 - four years, six months and seven days later.
The DMP examined IRI expense reports dated from March 1, 2009, to March 31, 2010. That was only a fraction of the expenses that IRI submitted as part of its multimillion-dollar Cuba contract.
The DMP audit found "weaknesses with regards to IRI's financial management system."
We questioned unsupported costs of [redacted] due to the lack of cost or price analyses documented in the procurement files. This is a repeat finding from the previous financial compliance review form dated May 2009.

Eusebio Leal to visit Florida

Eusebio Leal. Photo: Office of the Havana City Historian
Eusebio Leal, the Havana city historian who showed Secretary John Kerry around Old Havana in August, plans to visit Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida.
A news release about his visit is below:
Dr. Eusebio Leal, Cuba’s leading preservationist who is lauded for saving the country’s Habana Vieja district, will give a talk on his lifelong endeavors at Flagler College on Sunday, Oct. 11.

“He is dynamic and daring in his passionate commitment to preserve Havana,” said Dr. Leslee Keys, Flagler College’s director of historic preservation. “He has become legendary in his work.”

Keys was quick to point out parallels between the rise of the preservation movement in Cuba, as well as in St. Augustine and the greater United States.

“His work in Havana began just as St. Augustine had completed its 400th anniversary celebration,” she said. “Announcements were made in 1967 about the Hotel Ponce de Leon closing to become the centerpiece of the soon-to-be founded Flagler College. Also, the U.S. had just passed the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Call this timing a ‘perfect storm’ for preservation, if you like.”

Journalist predicts end to Cuban Adjustment Act

Alan Gomez
The Cuban Adjustment Act will eventually get an adjustment of its own, according to Alan Gomez, an immigration reporter at USA Today.
"I think it's absolutely going to end, but I think it's going to take a while," Gomez told students and faculty at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida.
Now that the United States and Cuba have diplomatic relations, it's "harder and harder to justify specialized treatment" of Cuban migrants, said Gomez, who spoke at Flagler College as part of the Forum on Government and Public Policy.
"There's a lot of push" to change the law, Gomez said, but he doesn't expect anything to happen for at least a year for several reasons, including the fact that the current Congress is "verifiably one of the least productive in history." (For more on the debate over the immigration law, see "Investigating the Cuban Adjustment Act").

Sunday, October 4, 2015

U.S. embassy in Havana buys solar system

The U.S. Embassy in Havana bought a solar power system for $55,120.66, records show.
The system should be installed by Oct. 15. Records available online don't show whether the system is for the embassy or for another building.
California-based Gigawatt Inc. is the contractor. The solar system is listed as an "8000 Watt (8 kW) Solar Install kit W/String inverter system."
Gigawatt's e-commerce site,, sells the system for $13,338, not including installation, labor and shipping.
Looks like a pretty sweet deal for the contractor.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Audit finds irregularities in Cuba program

Questioned costs redacted
A contractor for the Agency for International Development submitted $193,115 in questionable expenses in 2009 and 2010, according to an audit obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
The contractor, International Relief & Development, or IRD, was running a program called "Hastening the Transition to Democracy in Cuba."
The audit found that IRD claimed $193,115 in costs that were either poorly documented or prohibited.
The audit said:
We also noticed an ineligible charge of [redacted] included in the travel costs to the subaward for alcoholic beverages which are specifically unallowable per 2 CFR 230: Appendix B, 3.
Cost breakdowns were redacted, so it's impossible to know how much was spent on alcohol and other items in the name of Cuban democracy.
I requested the audit under a FOIA request to the U.S. Agency for International Development on March 18, 2011.
USAID responded on Sept. 25. The agency has spent millions of dollars on audits of the Cuba programs over the past five years. (See "USAID: For our eyes only.") This is the first time I've gotten a peek at one auditor's findings.
Alcohol included in travel expenses
The DMP Group in Washington, D.C. carried out this audit, examining $1,765,495 in expenses that IRD reported from March 1, 2009, to March 31, 2010.