USAID Cuba Programs Still Controversial

Cuba. Image by Tracey Eaton, 2010.

Cuba. Image by Tracey Eaton, 2010.

HAVANA -- When Cuban authorities threw Martha Beatriz Roque in jail in 2003, they accused her of taking money from the enemy: the United States.

Now out on parole, the dissident leader is unapologetic and remains a supporter of U.S. pro-democracy programs.

``One must eat,'' Roque, 65, said from her living room in Havana. ``People can't live on politics alone.''

But U.S. government programs aimed at helping dissidents and boosting democracy in Cuba remain controversial in both Havana and Washington.

Cuban authorities see the pro-democracy programs as an attempt at regime change. And they say they have living proof: Alan Gross, a development worker who was detained in Cuba one year ago Friday and accused of distributing illegal satellite communication gear.

Gross, 61, of Potomac, Md., was working for a U.S. subcontractor that was carrying out a pro-democracy program on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.

The agency has spent at least $140 million on pro-democracy programs in Cuba since 1996. USAID says it has used the money to help dissidents, political prisoners and their families, to strengthen civil society organizations, and to improve the flow of information to and from the island.

``There are many groups and individuals inside and outside Cuba who believe the funds are useful in supporting their ability to carry out their activities and promote fundamental freedoms . . .'' USAID said in response to a request for comment for this article.

Some critics question the legality of USAID programs in Cuba.

``Sadly, I believe Alan Gross may stay in jail a long time, as long as these programs continue,'' said Tony Martinez, editor of the United States Cuba Policy & Business Blog. ``I see the key to unlocking his freedom lies in our ending these covert and subversive programs.''

Defenders of the programs scoff at that kind of talk. They say the Obama administration needs to strengthen -- not weaken -- its support for Cuban dissidents. But as pro-democracy advocate Frank Calzon sees it, American diplomats have adopted a policy of ``aggressive niceness'' toward the socialist government.

``The message they are sending on the ground is that they don't care about Cuba's dissidents anymore and that's music to the regime's ears,'' said Mauricio Claver-Carone, a board member of the pro-embargo U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC.

Some of the agency's critics have demanded greater accountability after the Government Accountability Office said in 2006 that some grantees had kept poor records and misused funds. And in 2008, Felipe Sixto admitted stealing more than a half-million dollars while working at the Center for a Free Cuba, a major recipient of AID funds.

Bureaucratic tangles have slowed disbursement of USAID funds. Only in recent months has the agency been distributing $15.62 million that was budgeted for the 2009 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2009.

``The vast majority of this money is intended for individuals on the ground in Cuba,'' USAID said in its statement.

The AID statement caught the eye of Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who read parts of it before the United Nations General Assembly on Oct. 26. Cuba ``will change everything that needs to be changed, for the benefit of Cubans, but we will not ask the U.S. government's opinion,'' he said. ``We freely chose our destiny.''

Fidel Castro reiterated the foreign minister's speech on Nov. 1 and vowed that U.S. measures would not defeat the Cuban revolution.

Cuba scholars Nelson Valdes and Saul Landau question whether aggressive U.S. tactics during the Bush administration violated U.S. law. They contend that American officials in Havana were trying to create chaos to undermine the socialist government. Instead, Cuban authorities arrested Roque and 74 other pro-democracy activists in March 2003 and sent them to jail.

Roger Noreiga, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2003 to 2005, said the United States did nothing wrong.

``Americans can be proud that this is one of a handful of countries that has supported the aspirations of the Cuban people to claim control of their future from a cruel Stalinist regime,'' he said. ``I am proud of being a fierce advocate for democracy, and I am confident that our efforts were carried out in full compliance with the spirit and letter of the law.''