Did U.S. Envoy Go Too Far?

Campaign News | Tuesday, 2 September 2003

US News report

Did U.S. Envoy Go Too Far? Critics say aggressive stance against Cuba may have led to backlash on dissidents

By Letta Tayler


Newsday, September 2, 2003

Havana - Yankee capitalists hadn't courted Cuba this ardently since before the Communist revolution. Packing the opening day of a food vendors' fair here in October, U.S. participants were so eager to sell Cuba anything from chicken nuggets to chewing gum that they raced to shake hands with strongman Fidel Castro.

But a Cold-War wind blew through the love fest when James Cason, the new top U.S. diplomat to Cuba, arrived at a party for the American business representatives that evening.

"I expect to see a lot more bull than I do beef" from any food deals with Cuba, Cason thundered in his first major speech here. "... Cuba is an international deadbeat, sort of a Freddie the Freeloader."

His comments were the opening salvo in the Bush administration's stepped-up battle against Castro's regime, which has plunged relations between Cuba and the United States to one of their lowest points in decades.

Since arriving a year ago, Cason has made a point of bluntly condemning the Castro government in ways that many political observers consider unprecedented, not only with his words but through numerous meetings with members of Cuba's fledgling dissident movement.

Some critics believe the aggressive diplomacy may have backfired, giving Castro an excuse to launch his harshest crackdown since the 1959 revolution. In March, Cuban authorities imprisoned 75 journalists, human rights leaders and other Castro opponents on charges they were mercenaries paid by the United States to subvert the Communist revolution. U.S. officials and Cuban dissidents adamantly deny the allegations.

A review of U.S. aid programs shows that Washington poured $32.3 million this year alone into pro-democracy activities for Cuba, most of them based in the United States. But while a small portion of that sum bought millions of books, thousands of radios and scores of laptops for people in Cuba, only a tiny fraction actually reached dissidents on the island as cash, the review found.

Nevertheless, by funding organizations seeking regime change in the hemisphere's lone Communist nation, the United States has rekindled longstanding accusations of clumsy meddling in Latin American countries.

"The allocation of significant amounts of aid for 'democracy building' has made it easier for the Cuban government to portray political dissidents as foreign sympathizers, ultimately weakening the prospects for a strong human rights movement in the country," Amnesty International said in a June report deploring the crackdown on dissidents.

Wayne Smith, who headed the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba in 1979-82, says U.S. diplomats must meet with Cuban dissidents. "But when, as Cason has, you hold seminars and pass out shortwave radios, and you give as your objective to bring about rapid transition to a different form of government, you've stepped over the diplomatic line," he said from Washington, D.C.

A career foreign service officer, Cason has criss-crossed the country to meet with dissidents at their homes and frequently invited them to the U.S. Interests Section for conferences and to use fax machines and the Internet, which is off-limits to most Cubans. The Interests Section (as the limited U.S. diplomatic mission here is called) also has distributed thousands of shortwave radios so Cubans can listen to Radio Martí despite Cuban jamming.

Cason, 58, declined requests to be interviewed for this story, but in previous statements has said his interactions with Cuban citizens "are in fact appropriate and routine."

Cuba rounded up the dissidents because it was "fearful of a real, independent, civil society forming throughout the island, calling for change," one State Department official said.

However, some harsh critics of U.S. policy toward Cuba suggest Washington intentionally goaded Castro to drastic measures to please the Cuban leader's hard-line foes in Florida, who are considered pivotal to President George W. Bush's re-election.

"The United States wanted to lure Castro into a situation in which he'd overreact," said Larry Birns, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "That would blunt the rapidly changing playing field, in which more and more Americans were asking, 'Why shouldn't we have normal relations with Cuba?'"

For much of the past two years, a growing, bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers and businesses has pressured the White House to ease sanctions such as the decades-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. That group included agricultural businesses represented at the food fair here, who have used a loophole in the embargo to sell limited amounts of food to Cuba. After Castro's crackdown, that clamor for détente has almost stopped.

What hasn't stopped is the U.S. money flowing to nonprofit organizations, most of them in Washington or Miami, that seek democracy in Cuba, preferably without Castro at the helm. That funding began in earnest in 1996, after Cuba shot down planes over the Florida Straits that carried four Cuban-Americans whose group previously had dropped anti-Castro leaflets over the island.

Since then, the U.S. government has spent more than $30 million on Cuba-related programs at universities, media outlets and interest groups - $7 million of it this year. It also has spent $432 million since 1984 - $25.3 million this year - to transmit news to Cuba through Radio Martí and TV Martí. Most of those broadcasts don't reach the island's 11.2 million residents.

Of this year's funding to nonprofit groups, $6 million is channeled through the U.S. Agency for International Development and $1 million through the National Endowment for Democracy, a congressionally funded nonprofit organization founded during the Cold War.

No USAID money can be given to Cubans on the island as cash. However, many grantees use USAID money to buy medicine, books, radios or even copiers or laptops for independent libraries, human rights groups, journalists and economists in Cuba.

Through grantees, USAID since 1996 has given Cubans more than 150,000 pounds of food and medicine, 10,000 shortwave radios and 2 million books and other publications, according to Adolfo Franco, USAID's assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean.

"Obviously, if the definition of a counter-revolutionary is someone who desires to read Martin Luther King's and Vaclav Havel's books, and who wants to have access to information on democracy and human rights and [free] enterprise, then the activities of the individuals we promote constitutes subversion," said Franco, who is Cuban-American. "We call it freedom."

Cubans on the island also can receive some National Endowment funds as cash. About $200,000 of NED's $1-million Cuba budget made it to dissidents this year as cash aid, according to NED. For the most part, that money reimburses dissidents for their work in such fields as journalism, human rights, economics and trade organizing.

For example, Miriam Leiva, the wife of journalist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a prominent imprisoned dissident, said her husband was paid $15 - a pittance by U.S. standards but more than many Cubans' monthly salaries - per feature for CubaNet, a Miami-based online news service.

Payments for independent journalists' articles this year come from a $41,000 grant from the NED, said CubaNet editor Rosa Berre.

Some NED funding also goes straight to Cubans who have lost their jobs for opposing the government, or to families of imprisoned dissidents.

The Center for a Free Cuba, the largest recipient of U.S. funds for Cuba projects, spent $20,000 in NED money for direct aid to Cubans here in the past year and in July received another $55,000 for the same purpose.

Frank Calzón, the group's executive director, said roughly 80 percent of those NED funds goes to Cubans as cash. But no family receives more than $30 per month, and "the number of people we help per month are less than 100 and not everyone we help gets the money all the time," said Calzón.

Increased support for dissidents in Cuba will become a cornerstone of U.S. strategy for regime change on the island, according to several Bush administration officials.

"Our response to the crackdown ... is to redouble our efforts," said USAID's Franco. "If the goal of the Cuban government was to end the democracy movement, we are just energized to continue to support those courageous individuals and organizations in Cuba."

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