US is aiding Cuba opposition, says Chicago newspaper

Campaign News | Monday, 21 February 2005

Reports say cash assists dissident cause

CHICAGO TRIBUNE Feb. 21: As part of a broad strategy to spur political change in Cuba, the US government has been quietly sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to activists seeking to undermine President Fidel Castro's one-party state, according to documents and interviews.

The cash assistance is being channeled through the U.S.-financed National Endowment for Democracy and pays the salaries of more than two dozen freelance writers for a Miami-based Web site that posts articles critical of the Cuban government.

The cash also supports opposition figures, human-rights activists and political prisoners and their families, including prisoners jailed in 2003 during the government's crackdown on dissidents.

Supporters argue the cash payments, totaling about $200,000 a year, help keep opposition alive in a country where most dissidents are fired from their jobs and ostracized.

The cash payments comprise only a small part of President Bush's intensified campaign to squeeze the Castro regime through tightened trade sanctions and increased material support for opposition. Yet even some supporters of Bush's approach say that providing cash to dissidents gives ammunition to Cuban officials who denounce the opposition as "mercenaries" of an aggressive U.S. government.

Critics say they think the payments also endanger the dissidents, who face up to 20 years in prison if they participate in any U.S. government-funded program.

"Providing funding to dissidents at a time when the U.S. government says that its objective is to bring down the Cuban government is to turn the dissidents into subversive agents," said Wayne Smith, a former U.S. diplomat in Cuba. "It's a colossal mistake."

Christopher Sabatini, the endowment's director for Latin America and the Caribbean, argued the payouts to Cubans reflect the organization's support for democracy movements in many nations.

He said the group's efforts are aimed at promoting "a peaceful, eventual transition in Cuba."

"This is not about regime change," Sabatini said. "It's about helping independent, courageous individuals organize, have a voice, create political space and ensure that, when there is a transition, democratic institutions and actors are prepared."

Elizardo Sanchez, an activist who leads the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation in Havana, said his organization would not accept funds from the U.S. government because it could compromise the commission's independence and open it to further attacks by Cuban officials.

But Sanchez said he saw nothing wrong with U.S. funds paying freelancers for their work or supporting activists, political prisoners and their families.

"It's normal that the NED helps," he said. "The function of the NED is to promote democracy in the world."

Some of the 75 dissidents imprisoned in 2003 were specifically charged with accepting cash and other support from the U.S.,0,1306225.story?coll=sfla-news-cuba

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