Friday, January 22, 2016

USAID mission: Shape the Cuba narrative

A multimillion-dollar U.S. government-financed program was aimed at, among other things, developing an "information program focusing on the impact of foreign investors and foreign tourists on Cuba" and sensitizing the "business community and foreign leaders about the labor conditions and tourist apartheid in the island."
That's according to a document that the U.S. Agency for International Development released on Jan. 19 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that I made on Oct. 8, 2011.
The document describes a contract that USAID awarded to the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington, D.C., for a program called, "Uncensored Cuba."
The contract ran from March 31, 2005, to April 30, 2009, and was worth up to $7,231,663. USAID wound up paying the Center for a Free Cuba $6,652,853.12.
USAID censored details of Uncensored Cuba's budget, redacting the salaries, fringe benefits, communications, travel and other costs.
Budget details redacted
Frank Calzón, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, signed the contract. It stated:
During the three-year period of this cooperative agreement, the Center for a Free Cuba plans to focus on the following objectives:
#1: To continue its democracy building program that attempts to break Castro's monopoly of information by providing Cubans with literature on transition to democracy and market economics,

USAID announces $6 million in Cuba grants

The U.S. Agency for International Development on Thursday announced that it is offering $6 million in grants over a three-year period to organizations that will "provide humanitarian assistance to political prisoners and their families, and politically marginalized individuals and groups in Cuba."
Grant amounts will range from $500,000 to $2 million. The application deadline is Feb. 25.
In the grant notice, USAID warns against sending American citizens to Cuba.
Special thought and consideration should be given to the selection of consultants and other personnel who may be required to travel to the island. To the extent possible, travel by American citizens should be avoided. It is preferable for these personnel to speak Spanish fluently, possess solid understanding of the cultural context, and have prior experience on the island, in order to maximize their effectiveness in this unique operating environment.
The agency also says that grant recipients will be going to Cuba at their own risk and may not hold USAID responsible for what might happen to them. The notice states:
The U.S. government cannot ensure the safety and security of Recipient assets and personnel, particularly as relates to individuals traveling to Cuba under USAID funding, or project staff based in Cuba. Implementation of USAID programs in Cuba requires Recipient awareness of political sensitivities and assumption of risks associated with hostile actions of the Cuban government.
The Recipient will not serve as an agent or act under the direction of USAID and will be responsible for the efficient and effective administration of its own programs with sound business judgment, including any precautions inherent therein. ...the Recipient shall not hold USAID liable for injury, death, detainment, incarceration, kidnapping, property loss, damages, or expenses incidental to those liabilities, suffered by, or attributable to the acts, omissions or negligence of, the Recipient, its agents, or its employees implementing programs in Cuba under this NFO.
The grant program is called “Humanitarian Assistance to Cuba." The program description says:
By supporting civil society and promoting the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people, the President and the U.S. aim to empower the Cuban people to decide their own destiny.
USAID says the program is justified because "the Cuban government currently is detaining dozens of political prisoners for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression."
The grant notice says that by the end of 2015, there had been at least 8,616 political arrests in Cuba. Without getting into the merits or potential pitfalls of USAID's program, I think it's worth pointing out that many of those arrested for political reasons are taking part in programs funded by the U.S. government or U.S. government-financed organizations. I am not arguing for or against such programs or saying there are no human rights violations in Cuba, but I find it interesting that existing U.S. government programs are used to help justify and fuel the need for new programs.
Additional details about the program are below:

On July 20, 2015, the United States and Cuba formally re-established diplomatic relations and re-opened embassies in each other’s respective countries. The establishment of diplomatic relations allows the U.S. to discuss matters of mutual concern that would advance U.S. national interests, such as migration, counternarcotics, disaster response, environmental protection, and support for human rights. By supporting civil society and promoting the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people, the President and the U.S. aim to empower the Cuban people to decide their own destiny.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Vietnam veteran languishes in Cuba

Cuban native Otto Macias is a former combat infantryman who fought in the Vietnam War in the ‘60s before returning to the United States, his adopted homeland.
But in 1981, with no notice, the Department of Veterans Affairs abruptly cut off his benefits. Macias was a U.S. citizen, but he had gone back to Cuba and, as the VA saw it, paying him violated the embargo.
Jason Flores-Williams
On Wednesday, lawyer Jason Flores-Williams asked a federal appeals court to restore Macias’ benefits and compensate him “for benefits that were illegally terminated.”
“By terminating his benefits without providing him notice or a hearing, the VA violated Mr. Macias’ most fundamental due process rights,” said Flores-Williams, whose office is in Denver. “The VA has a statutory obligation to provide due process and to actively ensure that Veterans are fully advised before termination of their benefits.”
Flores-Williams filed his petition on behalf of Macias in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington, D.C.
The lawyer had traveled to Havana in 2015 to meet with Macias and his relatives. He learned that Macias was born in Camagüey in 1940. He moved to the U.S. in 1961 and enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Macias was trained as a sharpshooter and a 1st Class Gunner and operated the M60 machine gun. He served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, earning the National Defense Service Medal, the Bronze Service Star and the Combat Infantryman Badge Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.
By the end of his tour of duty, Macias was suffering from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was moved to a military hospital in Vietnam in 1969, discharged honorably in 1970 “only to spend the next six years lost in a haze of mental illness.”
Flores-Williams wrote:
He lived on the streets, slept on park benches: he was the homeless Vietnam Veteran that people step over on their way into the coffee house, the Iraq War veteran sleeping in his Chevy in the parking lot behind the mall. His family in Cuba thought he was dead.
But Mr. Macias was an American war hero, broken but unbowed, a man who had lived through hell and refused to die. In 1976, he was found on the streets and taken in by friends. He applied for and was granted citizenship.
Former President Gerald Ford signed his citizenship letter, which reads, “It is my pleasure to welcome you most warmly to citizenship of the United States of America. As you share the rights and benefits of citizenship with your fellow Americans, I hope the knowledge that you are now a vital part of the Nation that Abraham Lincoln once called ‘the last, best hope of earth’ will always be a source of pride to you.”
In March 1979, the VA was paying Macias $295.83 per month in non-service connected benefits. The agency boosted the amount to $325.16 three months later before dropping it to $60 per month.
In October 1980, the State Department gave Macias permission to travel to Cuba to visit his family for one week. He had intended to return to the U.S., but began suffering hallucinations while in Havana and was hospitalized.
Flores-Williams wrote:
He suffered a mental breakdown while in Havana. We cannot say why, perhaps the ghosts of the other world. He was delusional, hallucinating, caught between lands – one of the nameless millions lost to the fog of war. Mentally disabled, formally diagnosed with schizophrenia, he was hospitalized for three months. He did not intend to stay in Cuba, but was now unable to live on his own. Mr. Macias has remained in the kind care of his family in Havana since 1981.
The VA terminated his benefits in August 1981. At the time, the Veteran’s Benefits Manual stated that the VA must follow Treasury Department regulations, which said payment of benefits to anyone on the island violated laws banning trade with Cuba.
“The effect of these regulations was to make nearly all U.S. financial transactions with Cuba illegal, so that even a disabled American war hero, like Otto Macias, was prohibited from receiving the benefits earned in service to our nation,” Flores-Williams wrote.
In July, President Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba had restored diplomatic relations. The Treasury and Commerce departments have since revamped their policies toward Cuba, but the VA has failed to do so.
Flores-Williams is calling on the VA to update its policies to fit the Obama administration’s new approach toward Cuba. The lawyer wrote:
Perhaps – and this is a debatable perhaps – at one time the governmental interest in maintaining the Cuban Embargo could be used as a justification for denial of Mr. Macias’ right to due process and equal protection, but the laws have now changed and the VA must update its policies to be in compliance with them – so that Mr. Macias’ benefits should now be restored.
Now 75, Macias is ill and his health is deteriorating. Flores-Williams wrote:
Mr. Macias is in the last days of his life. Along with his schizophrenia and PTSD, he is suffering from skin cancer. Without the expeditious intervention of this Honorable Court, he will die without ever having been afforded the due process and benefits that he has so rightly earned. This Court can use this historic opportunity to move the VA to review its policies regarding the Cuban Embargo, so that it follows the lead of the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce.
We cannot say with certainty how many thousands of Cuban-American veterans have been negatively impacted by the Cuban Embargo, but ordering the VA to update its policies will help to bring them in from the cold.
The situation is historical. It is extraordinary. There are no other adequate means by which to address this deficiency in VA policy.

Friday, January 8, 2016

$5.6 million in Cuba grants up for grabs

Department of State
Public Notice
Funding Opportunity Number: DRLA-DRLAQM-16-045

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Request for Statements of Interest: Programs Fostering Civil, Political, and Labor Rights in Cuba

I. Requested Statements of Interest Objectives
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 project concepts and that have capacity to manage projects that will foster civil, political, and labor rights in Cuba.

PLEASE NOTE: DRL strongly encourages applicants to access immediately or in order to obtain a username and password. is highly recommended for all submissions and is DRLs preferred method of receiving applications. To register with for the first time, click “Login to GrantSolutions” and follow the “First Time Users” link to the “New Organization Registration Page.” On the next page, click on “Continue the GrantSolutions registration process without a DUNS number” if you do not have a DUNS number and registration. Otherwise, select the option that best fits. For more information, please see DRL’s Proposal Submission Instructions (PSI) for Statements of Interest, as updated in July 2015, available at:

The submission of a SOI is the first step in a two-part process. Prospective applicants must first submit a SOI, which is a concise, three-page concept note designed to clearly communicate a project idea and objectives without requiring development of a complete application. Upon review of eligible SOIs, selected prospective applicants will be invited to expand their ideas into an application. The intention of requesting SOIs first is to provide prospective applicants the time to develop ideas to promote internationally-recognized individual, civil, political, and labor rights - as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international instruments - in Cuba.