As $20 million in democracy funds for Cuba remained hung up in Congress, the State Department responded to Sen. John Kerry’s questions and concerns about the programs. According to an internal memo that the Cuba Money Project made public on June 3, the State Department told Kerry:
… we designed these new programs to strengthen direct engagement with the Cuban people and provide support for grassroots initiatives.
Democracy assistance in authoritarian or totalitarian states such as Cuba is often designed to lay the groundwork for future democratic institutions and, as such, 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.
Alina Brouwer, a Cuban exile and democracy activist, wrote a letter to Kerry asking that the funds be reinstated.
Dear Senator Kerry, you have never lived under a state of terror. You have no idea how it feels, when someone knocks at your door and a family member is taken away. Today, when a Castro goon knocks at someone’s door, the world learns in a matter of minutes the details of it. In the past, the brothers Castro got away with murder. Today, when a family member is beaten, harassed, there is someone telling it. That is only possible because of the aid they receive.
Anya Landau French, director of the New America Foundation’s U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative, applauded Kerry for trying to boost program oversight:
…it inspires confidence to see a Member of Congress willing to so doggedly pursue real answers.
Landau French said while it was difficult to know how the programs would evolve over the next few years, it was clear that the programs had changed under the Obama administration.
…the regime-change oriented program that grew during the Bush administration is now shifting its focus to “broaden” its work, to marginalized groups such as the disabled, gay Cubans and the sexually exploited (while maintaining support to families of political prisoners and to independent bloggers and other activists).
The “broader” focus may mean a less overtly regime-change program in deed, if not in word. But given that the aid is still authorized under Section 109, I’m not convinced it can get very far past the Cuban government, or that very many Cubans would accept it if they know from where it originates. And, I’m not convinced USAID can find many Cuban youth interested enough in advocating political rights as per USAID’s revamped plans, when what the youth are really looking for is anything but political. (It’s the economy, stupid.)
Mauricio Claver-Carone, a lobbyist who writes the Capitol Hill Cubans blog, criticized Landau’s position. He wrote:
As usual, Landau questions the mission of these programs, her distaste for “regime change” in Cuba (perhaps she prefers “regime preservation” — we prefer “regime choice” or how about just plain “freedom”)…
Freedom House complained that USAID oversight had gotten so rigorous that it was surrendering a $1.7 million USAID grant, the Miami Herald reported on June 10.
The non-profit organization explained that it didn’t want to reveal to USAID precisely how it spent money in Cuba because it feared someone in Washington would leak the information to the press, which could jeopardize aid recipients.
Alberto de la Cruz of the Babalu blog backed Freedom House’s decision.
Considering the large amount of indiscriminate leaks that take place in Washington D.C. of confidential information, and no doubt the permeation of Castro agents, operatives, and informants throughout the halls of U.S. government offices, Freedom House has decided to forgo funds from USAID in order to protect their people and their operations in Cuba.
After the Freedom House story came out, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, called on Kerry to release the funds:
U.S. democracy promotion programs in Cuba advance our foreign policy goals of helping to bring freedom to the Cuban people and to facilitate a transition to democracy. It is regrettable that Senator Kerry would block continued funding for these efforts.
Senator Kerry has suggested that U.S. democracy promotion programs provoked the Cuban regime into wrongfully imprisoning a U.S. citizen who was helping the Cuban people overcome the dictatorship’s censorship. I believe this demonstrates a lack of understanding of the brutal nature of the Havana tyranny. It is my hope that Senator Kerry will reconsider his position.
On June 16, the Miami Herald’s editorial board chimed in.
At a time when Cuba’s masters are fighting desperately to avoid an economic and political collapse, Washington is caught up in an increasingly silly and pointless dispute over funds to promote civil society and democracy on the island. This nonsense could not come at a worse time.
Sen. John Kerry has put the brakes on funding previously approved by federal lawmakers without supplying clear reasons for his actions or his intent. This is both a significant departure from the usual script involving U.S. policy toward Cuba and a surprising — and disappointing — role for the senator from Massachusetts.
Robert A. Pastor, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council, defended Kerry in a June 22 column. He wrote:
Sen. John Kerry should be applauded, not criticized, for seeking more information on the efficacy of a program that has had a history of corruption, political patronage and, most recently, led to the arrest of an American citizen, Alan Gross.
A smart policy on democracy abroad is to recognize that each country is different, and the strategy needs to be adapted to those differences. If USAID thinks that it should apply the same policy everywhere, then it is wasting Americans’ tax money. Thanks to the senator, the GAO is studying this program, and we ought to wait for its report before spending any more money.
Earlier in the month, the U.S. Agency for International Development on June 13 announced $21 million in grants aimed at expanding use of social media in Cuba, increasing access to information, distributing laptops, boosting freedom of expression among young people, and supporting community groups.
One program, called “Making Space: Places for Youth Expression in Cuba,” is aimed at boosting freedom of expression and association for Cuban youth ages 12 to 24.
Among those targeted: Youth “from marginalized and vulnerable populations, which would include Afro-Cubans, rural and inner-city youth, disabled youth, orphans, and at-risk youth (from broken families and single-parent households).”
State-run media in Cuba – including Granma newspaper – condemned the plan. But some dissidents, including Martha Beatriz Roque, defended the idea, saying at least democracy activists won’t be “brainwashing” children.
On June 9, members of the Center for Democracy in the Americas visited Alan Gross in prison in Cuba.
They reported that Gross, who was jailed in December 2009 while doing U.S.-government financed democracy work in Cuba, exercised every morning before breakfast and considered himself “quite buff.” (See interview of two delegation members).
After returning to the United States, members of the delegation met with Gross’s wife, Judy, and gave her a yellow rose as her husband had requested.
Days later, Judy Gross told Reuters that her husband was not doing as well as the delegation portrayed. She was quoted as saying:
Alan’s health deteriorates daily; he has lost nearly 100 pounds. While he is trying to make the best of a bad situation and put on a brave face, the truth he is suffering tremendously.
On June 2, el Grupo Caiman posted a YouTube video called “Don’t Forget Alan Gross.” It asks the Cuban government to free the American development worker.