The United States should strive to promote greater freedoms on the island of 11 million people and loosen the grip of one of the most repressive governments in the world. But it must chart a new approach informed by the lessons of nearly two decades of failed efforts to destabilize the Castro regime.
During the final years of the Clinton administration, the United States spent relatively little on programs in Cuba under Helms-Burton. That changed when George W. Bush came to power in 2001 with an ambitious aim to bring freedom to oppressed people around the world. The United States Agency for International Development, better known for its humanitarian work than cloak-and-dagger missions, became the primary vehicle for pro-democracy work in Cuba, where it is illegal.
In the early years of the Bush administration, spending on initiatives to oust the government surged from a few million a year to more than $20 million in 2004. Most contracts were awarded, without much oversight, to newly formed Cuban-American groups. One used funds on a legally questionable global lobbying effort to persuade foreign governments to support America’s unpopular embargo. Other grantees sent loads of comic books to the American diplomatic mission in Havana, bewildering officials there. The money was also used to buy food and clothes, but there was no way to track how much reached relatives of political prisoners, the intended recipients.
According to a November 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office, one contractor used the pro-democracy money to buy “a gas chain saw, computer gaming equipment and software (including Nintendo Game Boys and Sony PlayStations), a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat and Godiva chocolates,” purchases he was unable to justify to auditors.
Adolfo Franco, then head of the aid agency’s Latin America office, defended the programs in a speech at the University of Miami, claiming they were contributing to the steady growth of Cuba’s political opposition. He argued that the agency needed to keep taking “calculated risks,” even though many in Congress were skeptical that the efforts were fruitful. “Ending this regime is a solemn duty,” said Mr. Franco, a Cuban-American.
The G.A.O. probe led the aid agency to start awarding more funds to established development organizations, including some that pitched bold initiatives. In 2008, Congress appropriated $45 million for the programs, a record amount. One major undertaking that started during the Bush years to expand Internet access in Cuba had disastrous repercussions for the Obama administration.
In September 2009, the State Department sent a relatively senior official to Havana in an attempt to restore mail service and to cooperate on migration policy, marking the highest level contact in years. That December, Cuban authorities arrested an American subcontractor who traveled to the island five times on U.S.A.I.D. business, posing as a tourist to smuggle communication equipment.
JG: Various U.S. administrations have probably spent more than $264 millions. What has been the result?