Sunday, March 30, 2008

U.S. shifting funds away from Miami anti-Castro groups

U.S. shifting funds away from Miami anti-Castro groups
The White House aims to address allegations of favoritism by sending aid
to international organizations -- away from South Florida's anti-Castro
Posted on Sun, Mar. 30, 2008

The Bush administration is undertaking a major do-over of the
controversial Cuba democracy grants, restricting the funds available for
anti-Castro groups in Miami and sending more resources to non-U.S.
international advocacy organizations, officials and others familiar with
the programs say.

The new orientation, which has sent tremors of uncertainty among many
grant recipients in South Florida, comes as the State Department and the
U.S. Agency for International Development prepare to award a record
$45.7 million in Cuba democracy grants this year -- more than triple the
2007 levels.

The money aims to bring about a transition to democracy in Cuba, but the
programs have long faced allegations they favor more Cuban Americans in
Miami than people on the island. On Friday, a White House aide resigned
amid allegations of misusing program money when he worked for one of the
Cuban-American groups.

The funds are to be awarded via competitive bids and officials are
urging Eastern European and Latin American groups to apply. The
administration is especially eager for proposals that would provide
communications technologies to activists in Cuba. Officials say Internet
access, YouTube videos and cellphone text messages propelled movements
to challenge governments in places like Tibet and Burma.

Access to these technologies is restricted by the communist government,
although on Friday, Havana announced cellphones would be made more
widely available. Earlier, the government has also said computers would
be sold to all Cubans.

''We are not . . . excluding anybody from the process,'' said José
Cárdenas, the deputy assistant administrator for South America and Cuba
at USAID, ``but with the tremendously escalated resources, definitely we
want new participants in the program.

''We would love to see more former East European bloc groups and
individuals,'' he added, ``and we would love to see more private
interest and activity from Latin America.''

Until now, the bulk of the grants have been funnelled through Miami
groups. Critics said the programs placated Cuban-American groups but did
little to bring democracy to Cuba. Havana routinely calls Cuban
recipients of U.S. aid programs ``mercenaries of the empire.''

A November 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office
criticized USAID for providing $74 million in grants since 1996 without
competitive bids. The GAO also found some instances of abuse, including
using grant money to purchase game consoles and cashmere sweaters.

And on Friday, the White House announced Felipe Sixto, its top liaison
with the Cuban-American community, resigned over allegations he may have
improperly obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money at a
previous job with the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba.

But supporters of the programs say the GAO report also found programs
delivered vast quantities of communications equipment and other supplies
to dissidents on the island. The increase in resources for Cuban
democracy grants was easily approved by Congress last year.

Officials say Miami-based organizations will now need to show they can
provide training, equipment and other resources to groups on the island.
''We want to see an impact in Cuba not somewhere in the United States,''
said one official who helped craft the new guidelines and agreed to
speak candidly provided he was not quoted by name.

The goal is to empower Cubans to operate independently of the communist
system, which controls everything from access to the mass media to jobs.
With Fidel Castro retired, his brother and successor Raúl Castro has
taken some timid steps toward debate and reforms, though Cárdenas said
the country was still ''tightly controlled'' by the government.

U.S. officials say Washington-based advocacy organizations like Freedom
House, International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National
Endowment for Democracy (NED) will also be favored by the new guidelines
because they have longstanding links with foreign pro-democracy groups.

Some money already has been provided to groups like the Czech advocacy
group People In Need.

European and Latin American activists have an easier time entering Cuba
than U.S. citizens.

Paul Fagan, the head of IRI's Latin American programs, says his group
often uses Latin Americans to conduct training seminars for Cuban
activists, and is looking to set up Cuba programs with Baltic states
like Latvia.

According to 2008 State Department budget documents, $33.7 million is to
support civil society groups in Cuba, $5 million will support ''rule of
law and human rights'' and $7 million is for ``political competition and

The change in orientation has caused uncertainty among grant recipients
in Miami, especially among academic programs that do not deal directly
with civil society groups in Cuba.

Jaime Suchlicki says he will keep running his Cuba Transition Project, a
unit of the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the
University of Miami, regardless of what the U.S. government does.

''CTP is not going to end, whether we get funding or not,'' said
Suchlicki, a historian and longtime head of the institute.

USAID provided $500,000 annually to fund seven researchers focusing on a
post-Castro Cuba. Late last year, USAID said the program would not be
renewed, though Suchlicki plans to reapply for a grant this year.

Frank Calzón, the head of the Center for a Free Cuba, said his USAID
program ended recently but he had enough funds to keep going until the
guidelines become clear. The center provides assistance and equipment to
dissidents on the island, and works with international human rights
organizations and foreign governments to raise awareness on abuses in Cuba.

Calzón said programs are evolving over time.

''There are other tools, there are other instruments,'' he said. ``Now,
there are people in Europe, in Latin America who want to help the Cuban
people by sending books, by going to the island.''

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