US sends foreign aid to third countries to promote change in Cuba

Campaign News | Saturday, 23 December 2006

From the Bradenton Herald newspaper

MIAMI - While Cuban leader Fidel Castro's health crisis has sparked new debate over federal funding of U.S. groups pushing for change on the communist island, the United States has for years quietly funneled millions of dollars to groups working in Europe to also promote Cuban democracy.

Through the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit foundation created by the Reagan administration in 1983, more than $200,000 has gone to the Czech group People in Need, which nurtures independent Cuban journalists.

The endowment gave Slovakian groups People in Peril and the Pontis Foundation $33,000 over two years to promote independent think tanks on the island. The Spanish magazine, Encounter of Cuban Culture, has received $771,000 in endowment grants since 1998 to print articles by Cuban dissidents.

Over the last two decades, the endowment has granted nearly $14 million to Cuba democracy programs, many based in the U.S., that link Cuban dissidents to groups in Europe and Latin America. The grants grew from $110,000 in 1986 to nearly $2.4 million last year.

Like the funds allocated to Cuban democracy groups based on American soil through the U.S. Agency for International Development or USAID, the endowment grants have had a mixed record.

Caribbean expert Daniel Erikson said the efforts have yielded few tangible results inside Cuba, but they have helped support local groups in countries such as the Czech Republic, Sweden and Spain that can put pressure on their own governments' policies toward Cuba.

"You have Cuba becoming a more salient issue in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia when before it wasn't even on the radar screen," said Erikson, a senior policy associate at the Washington-based think tank the Inter-American Dialogue.

Still, in November, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned the U.S. embargo against Cuba, 184-4, and Cuba recently won a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Critics say the effort reflects the lengths to which the federal government must go to avoid the snags of its own Cuba policy - which makes it illegal for the U.S. government to send money directly into the country, even to fund anti-Castro groups. But because the endowment is a private corporation, its dollars can be sent to groups in Cuba - even though the money originally came from the federal treasury.

"We're working at cross-purposes," said Florida International University Vice Provost Damian Fernandez, who also heads the school's Cuban Research Institute.

Fernandez said he would rather the U.S. find more common ground with foreign governments on Cuba than provide aid to independent foreign organizations.

Then there is the issue of oversight. A recent report by congressional investigators criticized the federal government's lax control of USAID grants to U.S. based anti-Castro organizations. Determining how the money is spent abroad is even more difficult.

"You're using people with a lower profile. You are giving funds once removed at a distance and it has a lower silhouette," said Larry Birns, head of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, which advocates an end to the embargo.

Caleb McCarry, the Bush administration's Cuba transition coordinator at the State Department, said support for such groups, especially those in Eastern Europe, is key to U.S.-Cuban policy.

"Organizations in countries that have undergone a transition from communism to democracy have a great deal to offer in terms of sharing their experience and understanding the difficulties of promoting democracy within a police state," McCarry said.

Others argue that Eastern Europeans and Latin Americans have more influence with Cuba because historically they've had strong relations with the island.

The vast majority of government funding for anti-Castro programs still goes to U.S.-based organizations located predominantly in Miami and Washington. These groups generally seek to aid opponents of the Cuban government, including journalists, dissidents and their families, and they conduct research on a post-Castro Cuba, receiving more than $65 million since 1996 from USAID, their main donor.

While some USAID money has always gone toward internationally focused programs, that is a major part of the endowment's grants. The grants are small, and for years the money went almost exclusively to organizations funded or set up by U.S.-based groups. The International Coalition for Human Rights in Cuba, which received $865,000 between 1986 and 1993 and claimed members in Spain, Sweden and Germany, was funded through the powerful Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation.

More recently, a $213,000 grant helped support the Miami-based pro-union International Group for Corporate Social Responsibility, which was created in Spain last year and claims members from across Europe and the Americas.

Endowment Vice President Barbara Haig said the grants to third-country organizations are necessary since organizations in Cuba are prohibited from accepting U.S. funds and those accused of doing so are branded as traitors or mercenaries. She also said the European groups had shown successful track records before they received the grants.

"The problem of democracy in Cuba is not just a problem for America, it's a problem all over," she added.

USAID funds are also increasingly being used for the international efforts. The Miami-based Cuban Democratic Directorate is one of the government's largest Cuba grantees, receiving more than $6 million from USAID and the endowment.

In recent years it has opened offices in Mexico and Argentina and now runs activities out of several other Latin American countries and Europe using USAID funds. It has more than doubled its budget for foreign offices from about $200,000 to nearly $500,000 between 2004 and 2005, according to federal tax forms.

It recently helped promote a protest by 100 youths outside Cuba's embassy in Peru.

Co-Founder Orlando Gutierrez said he has repeatedly been audited by donors and that the organization maintains strict internal controls on how the money has been spent. He said the group has long sought to publicize Castro's human rights violations beyond the U.S.

"When the regime was able to convince a lot of people that it was poor little Cuba against the U.S., a lot of people would side with Castro against the U.S. while ignoring human rights violations and the trampling of rights inside Cuba," Gutierrez said.

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