Sunday, September 03, 2006

Most of $80 million in aid for democracy in Cuba will stay in U.S.

Sun-Sentinel.com

By Vanessa Bauzá
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted September 1 2006

In the month since Fidel Castro's unprecedented transfer of power, the Bush administration has urged Cubans on the island to work for democracy and reject what it calls a dynastic succession to "baby brother" Raúl Castro.

But little has changed there, and only a fraction of the $80 million Washington has allocated to spur political transition will ever get to Cuba.

The largest chunk of that money is meant to support independent civil organizations on the island over the next two years. Under current regulations, however, most of it will be used to help organizations in the United States, to pay for expenses such as phone calls, staff salaries, publishing reports, and computers and fax machines for opposition groups.

Last year, of $11.2 million distributed for Cuba-related projects by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy, only $214,274 was sent as cash to the island, according to the agencies.

That's because USAID, the agency that distributes most federal funding for Cuba grants, prohibits recipients from sending money to individuals or organizations in Cuba. As a private organization, NED has no such restrictions.

Budgets for Cuba-related projects for USAID and NED have ballooned over the past decade. USAID's Cuba program, which started with $500,000 in 1996, now has $7.3 million. NED's funding has almost doubled, from $602,658 in 1996 to $1.1 million this year.

Cuban-American leaders, those who administer the grants and Cuban dissidents are divided over the effectiveness of the funding. Some argue funneling cash and supplies to Cuba's opposition stigmatizes and endangers the movement. Others are concerned that sending cash directly to independent civic groups would ultimately end up in Castro's coffers and say U.S. organizations can help in other ways.

Juan Carlos Acosta, who heads the USAID-funded, nonprofit Acción Democrática Cubana in Miami, said news of Castro's intestinal surgery, announced July 31, galvanized his decade-old mission to help dissidents on the island. But he thinks USAID regulations stymie those efforts.

In 2004, for example, he spent $120,000 to pay professional smugglers and shipping agencies to send humanitarian aid to Cuba. The aid itself, including clothing, medication, food, books and electronic equipment, totaled only $88,000.

Acosta said he would rather send cash.

"Money is very important in the hands of the dissident, because the first consequence of being a dissident is losing one's job," Acosta said. "The Cuban government has always accused the dissidents of being salaried [employees] of the United States since 1959; that doesn't justify not sending the money."

Critics, including some Cuban dissidents, argue that federal funds make the opposition movement vulnerable to Castro's charges that they are conspiring with the United States to overthrow the Cuban government -- a crime in Cuba for which 60 dissidents have been imprisoned since 2003.

Former government economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe knows firsthand the benefits and potential pitfalls of U.S. funding. In 2003 he was imprisoned for 19 months on charges that he conspired with the U.S. government after receiving a stipend, made possible by federal funding, for his reports on the Coral Gables-based Web site, CubaNet.

"We think this concrete step is counterproductive because it serves as an instrument for the [Cuban] government to cultivate nationalism and make us look like ... mercenaries," Espinosa Chepe said from Havana.

He continues to receive about $60 a month as payment for articles that appear on the Web site. But he said money to support the opposition movement should come from the Cuban-American community, not the U.S. government.

Some of the new funding, a 63 percent increase over the $49 million designated by the Bush administration in 2004, will augment broadcasts of Radio and TV Martí, improve Internet access on the island and offer scholarships for Cuban students.

"There are Cubans in Cuba who are talking about a democratic transition, and the purpose of our assistance is to support the efforts of Cubans to successfully define the path that leads to free and fair elections and a future of prosperity for the country," said Caleb McCarry, Washington's Cuba transition coordinator.

The Cuban American National Foundation has lobbied since 1998 to allow cash to be sent directly to dissident groups in Cuba and thinks this is a critical moment to make the changes.

"We know there are factions in the upper echelons of power [in Cuba], and this provides an opportunity for direct aid to have an even greater effect than it would have had in the past," said Camila Ruiz-Gallardo, director of government relations at the foundation.

In his only statement since the transfer of power, Raúl Castro called U.S. efforts to accelerate a transition in Cuba "boorish" and said millions of Cubans stand ready to defend their island nation "with rifles in hand."

"Up until now, the attacks during these days have not gone further than rhetorical ones, except for the substantial increase in subversive anti-Cuba broadcasts over radio and television," Raúl Castro told Granma, the Communist Party newspaper.

"All things considered, they are spending millions in U.S. taxpayers' money to achieve the same result as ever: a TV that is not seen," he said, referring to TV Martí, which is blocked by the Cuban government.

Vanessa Bauzá can be reached at vbauza@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4514

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