Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Support for U.S. programs that help Cuba running on empty

Posted on Tuesday, 01.26.10
Support for U.S. programs that help Cuba running on empty
The money helps support dissidents, independent journalists and other
peaceful civil society groups.

The U.S. government's Cuba democracy programs are all but paralyzed,
facing political, safety and bureaucratic hurdles that critics and
backers agree could end up halting their more aggressive features.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which doles out
much of the money, has not requested new funding proposals since March,
and groups that run the programs complain they have little money left.

Powerful Democrats in Congress are vowing to block the more
``provocative'' programs, and the Obama administration is hinting it may
halt a key part of the programs that Cuba brands as ``subversive.''

``If this continues in the same way, the whole pro-democracy program is
going to be dead,'' said Frank Calzon, whose Center for a Free Cuba in
suburban Washington stopped receiving U.S. funds last year.

Launched during the Clinton administration, the Cuba Democracy
Assistance program was expanded under President George W. Bush and
Congress in 2008 approved $40 million for the two-year period that ends
Sept. 30.

The money goes to non-government organizations and private firms that in
turn support dissidents, independent journalists and other peaceful
civil society groups and deliver items like books, shortwave radios,
computers satellite TV receivers and cellphones.

Some of program's current problems are bureaucratic, several
knowledgeable persons told El Nuevo Herald. Most requested anonymity and
declined to comment on the U.S. funds their organizations receive,
because of the political sensitivity of the issue.

USAID has been leaderless for the past year, they all agreed. Rajiv
Shah, President Barack Obama's pick to head the agency, was sworn in
just this month. Elaine Grigsby, its veteran head of Cuba programs,
moved to another post last year. And her replacement was quickly
reassigned to Pakistan.


``Given its sensitive and political nature, the Cuba program needs . . .
most importantly, high level support to push the bureaucracy,'' said a
former Bush administration official. But the bureaucrats' ``default is
to do as little as possible until they know what the White House and the
political leadership want.''

USAID's notice requesting new proposals for Cuba programs, initially
expected in March, still has not been issued, said the head of a
nonprofit that receives U.S. funds.

``We're going to have to basically pack up and close,'' said Frank
Hernandez Trujillo of the Miami-based Grupo de Apoyo a la Disidencia
when the last of his USAID money runs out March 31. The group received
$6 million since 2005, he said.

And at the State Department, which also handles some of the Cuba funds,
Obama appointee Arturo Valenzuela was not sworn in as deputy secretary
for Western Hemisphere Affairs until November.

The paralysis in the pro-democracy programs, said supporters, comes at a
time when Cubans are expressing increasing frustration with the economy
and political controls.

``This is the worst possible time for the funds to be frozen, because
the civil society movement in Cuba is giving clear signals it is
awake,'' said Orlando Gutierrez of the Cuban Democratic Directorate in

Cuban authorities threw the programs into further turmoil Dec. 4, when
they arrested USAID subcontractor Alan Gross in Havana. Gross, who
remains jail, had been reportedly helping Jewish groups on the island
gain ``unfiltered'' access to the Internet.


Gross' arrest highlighted the more aggressive and risky aspects of the
U.S. programs -- the Cuban government makes it a crime to receive U.S.
assistance and tightly controls communications equipment -- and sparked
speculation that Havana will keep him in prison until Washington puts a
stop to at least some of the programs.

The arrest already led USAID and the State Department to clamp down on
such travel by U.S. contractors and subcontractors, one of the key ways
in which goods have been slipped into the island in recent years.

On Dec. 28, the State Department's Cuba desk sent out an e-mail ``to
re-emphasize our recommendation to temporarily defer travel to the
island until further notice,'' according to a copy obtained by El Nuevo
Herald. The e-mail, said recipients, amounted to a stop-travel order.

Florida Republican Sen. George LeMieux said he met with Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton and Rajiv Shah last month and won their promise to
move quickly on the stalled Cuba funds.

Support for U.S. programs that help Cuba running on empty - Americas - (27 January 2010)

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