Below is a summary of the State Department’s response to Sen. John Kerry’s questions about democracy programs in Cuba, along with a few comments.
Download the three-page summary or read entire memo here.
1) Question: Name the contractors and sub-contractors who carry out Cuba-related democracy work. Describe how they are achieving their goals.
Answer: The State Department discloses contractors in Cuba as it does elsewhere in the world. Contractors who aren’t named are marked “TBD” – to be determined.
Excerpt: “Our programs respond to the interests and needs of Cuban groups and individuals. Despite the restrictions placed upon them by their own government, Cuban citizens continue to ask for more technical and material support to increase their ability to network and communicate with each other.”
Comment: On March 31, the State Department outlined its plans $20 million in Cuba programs. The department named 17 programs and only five recipients. A dozen programs were marked TBD and no subcontractors were named (See memo).
2) Question: Democracy programs were supposed to evolve under the Obama administration. How is that happening?
Answer: This isn’t regime change anymore. We’re helping Cubans “freely determine their own future.” Also, the emphasis has shifted. We’re channeling as much aid as possible directly to Cuba rather than spending outside the island. We’re helping a wider range of people, not just legacy dissidents, but LGBT groups and the disabled.
Excerpt: “This focus on the island supports our efforts to reach broader segments of the Cuban population, while deepening the direct impact of the programs.”
Comment: I wonder if support for the LGBT community is a jab at Cuban gay rights activist Mariela Castro. She directs Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education and is President Raul Castro’s daughter.
3) Question: List Latin American programs that have been cut back while funding for Cuba programs climbed from $15 million in 2009 to $20 million in 2010. Explain how priorities are set.
Answer: There’s nothing unusual about Cuba funding.
4) Question: In 2010, the State Department and AID said they would consult with Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffers about the Cuba programs. Why didn’t that happen?
Answer: Officials have had “extensive conversations with Members of Congress and staff.”
Excerpt: “We greatly value the input provided by Members of Congress and their staff. …Many of the ideas for programmatic focus, as well as suggestions for internal management controls, came initially from your staff as well as Members of Congress and their staff…”
5) Question: Cuban counterintelligence agents are reported to have infiltrated some democracy programs and received democracy aid. The reports “compromised the existence of at least one front organization for operations directed from a Central American country.” Have the programs been damaged? What steps have been taken to prevent taxpayer-funded aid and equipment from winding up in the hands of Cuban agents? Would it be better to let intelligence agencies handle the programs?
Answer: Officials carry out the programs in a “discreet manner” aimed at protecting the safety “of all those involved.”
Excerpt: “These programs are comparable to what we and other donors do to support democracy and human rights in repressive societies all over the world. Possible counterintelligence penetration is a known risk in Cuba. Those who carry out our assistance are aware of such risks. …the Cuban government arbitrarily arrests and detains citizens who try to exercise basic freedoms…Unfortunately, given these circumstances, we are not always able to publicly convey the details and impact of our programs.”
Comment: The State Department says it has hired an accounting firm to review the Cuba programs, but the department has not released the audit. I requested a copy of the results under the Freedom of Information Act (See that FOI request and others here).
6) Question: What steps have been taken to improve oversight?
Answer: Meetings, meetings and more meetings. These include:
- “Weekly, working-level inter-agency meetings” on “management, administrative, and programmatic issues
- Quarterly daylong meetings “for all State and USAID partners implementing Cuba programs”
- Daylong meetings of USAID and State Department officials who “discuss program activities in greater detail in order to avoid programmatic overlaps.”
USAID also tries to make sure aid recipients don’t receive the same resources from multiple agency partners.
7) Question: Why are funds to mobilize protests listed under “humanitarian” assistance? Why do contractors and grantees smuggle locally available goods into Cuba at great risk and additional expense? Why are programs focused only on political organizing and political activities…?
Answer: U.S. foreign assistance to Cuba is not used to mobilize protests. Grantees are encouraged to buy supplies on the island to minimize shipping costs. Support goes to Cubans who have not received aid in the past, including those who have been sexually exploited. Programs are also aimed at spreading information about free markets. Relaxed rules on remittances should help reduce people’s dependence on the Cuban government and stimulate “independent economic activity.”
8.) Question: Provide comparisons of the Cuba programs with those carried out in other countries. What is the State Department’s policy on training aid recipients to use covert communications techniques? Why aren’t aid recipients told the programs are linked to the democracy-building efforts outlined in Section 109 of the 1996 Libertad Act?
Answer: Support for “universal values” is a cornerstone of U.S. national security strategy. USAID partners are instructed “to tell Cuban recipients the source of the assistance when asked.”
Excerpt: “Globally, in countries such as Belarus, Burma, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Zimbabwe, the U.S. Government responds to autocratic challenges by providing training, materials, and internet and radio platforms and organizational support for civic groups, networks and the media.…the major challenges facing the USG are how to create and maintain political and civic space in the face of a hostile regime that is prepared to use state resources to prevent criticism and meaningful reform.…our top priority in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states is invigorating an engaged and dynamic civil society, in particular journalists who represent the voice of civil society, and traditionally marginalized groups, such as minorities and women.”
9) Question: How do you know the programs are effective? What projects in Cuba are considered the most successful? What programs are not as effective?
Answer: The Department of State and USAID use “standard methods and indicators for tracking programs.” The working environment is hostile in Cuba, so monitoring programs is “more difficult.”
An example of success: “The combined efforts of USG programs have been instrumental in raising the international profile of civil society activists, especially bloggers and journalists. This increased attention serves to protect opposition leaders from retribution by Cuban authorities, allowing them to continue disseminating their message and to raise awareness about grassroots issues.”
Examples of limited success, which U.S. officials blamed on the Cuban government: An effort to conduct opinion polls in Cuba, and a scholarship program for Cuban students.
10) Question: How do Cuba programs advance U.S. foreign policy?
Answer: They promote fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, freedom to assemble and access to information.
Excerpt: “Since taking office, President Obama has made clear his commitment to supporting the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their own future.”
11) Question: The programs have cost more than $150 million. What have they accomplished?
Answer: We have trained human rights groups, “hundreds of journalists,” and “hundreds of students and young adults.” We have also given humanitarian aid to political prisoners, their families and other “victims of repression.”
Excerpt: “Democracy assistance in authoritarian or totalitarian states such as Cuba is often designed to lay the groundwork for future democratic institutions…the impact of that assistance can be difficult to measure, particularly at an early stage. Nevertheless, these programs have already made notable achievements. Feedback from program recipients tells us that Cubans depend on our support and have used it in a discreet manner to exercise their fundamental freedoms while maintaining independence and legitimacy.”
12) Question: How do these programs affect the fate of jailed American development worker Alan Gross? How likely is it that others will be arrested?
Answer: Carrying out democracy programs in such countries as Cuba is risky, and “all grantees and contractors are aware of such risks.”
Excerpt: “We continue to press for Mr. Gross’s immediate release. We remain deeply concerned for his welfare and that of his family, and are using every available diplomatic channel to secure his release. Mr. Gross is innocent, and his continued detention is unjust.”
13) Question: Are USG contractors and subcontractors given special exemptions to export goods and cash to Cuba that humanitarian and religious NGOs do not receive?
Answer: Government contractors and subcontractors traveling to Cuba receive no special exemptions. Program grantees should declare all goods upon entering Cuba.