Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Cuba Money Project?
An independent investigative journalism initiative based in Florida.
What is your mission?
To become a leading source of information, analysis and opinion about U.S. government-financed democracy programs in Cuba.
Why did you start the Cuba Money Project?
I want to help shed light on the U.S. government role in Cuba’s transition to the post-Castro era and learn whether democracy programs in Cuba are effective.
What U.S. law authorizes the democracy programs?
Section 109 of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act.
How much has the U.S. government spent on Section 109 programs in Cuba?
More than $150 million.
The U.S. government spends trillions of dollars every year. What’s the big deal about $150 million?
The amount of money is small, but it is important in light of the historical context. U.S. officials have been trying to exert influence on Fidel Castro’s government for more than 50 years. The democracy programs are a continuation of that crusade.
Are the democracy programs legal from the Cuban government’s perspective?
No, they are not. In 1999, Cuba’s National Assembly enacted Law 88 – the Law for the Protection of National Independence and the Economy of Cuba. Under the law, Cubans who collaborate with media organizations seen as promoting U.S. policy can get up to five years in prison. People who disturb the public order and aid the U.S. “economic war” on Cuba can also be punished. Dissident leaders can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.
What is your opinion on the democracy movement in Cuba?
My goal as a journalist is to be objective and to collect opinions from people on all sides of the issue. Those are the opinions that matter, not mine. That said, I believe that efforts to expand basic liberties in any country is a noble cause, and I recognize the courage of Cuban dissidents, bloggers and others who risk their freedom trying to build a better nation.
Why don’t you create a website focused on democracy in Cuba?
There are already dozens of informative and effective websites aimed at promoting freedom and human rights in Cuba. But I haven’t seen any websites like the Cuba Money Project, and I decided to try to fill that niche.
What is your opinion on U.S. policy toward Cuba?
As a blogger since 2008, I have written that the U.S. ought to look for ways to improve relations with Cuba. I have since decided that it’s best to leave the opinion-making to others. My duty as a journalist is not to issue opinions. It is to listen to and consider all sides of the story. I want this website to be a forum for a diverse crowd, including both those who favor hard-line policies toward Cuba and those who don’t. My pledge is that I will report the story with respect for all views, from everyone from Bay of Pigs veterans and dissidents to government supporters in Havana.
What is your opinion on the Cuban government?
I don’t intend to take sides, interfere with the democracy movement in Cuba, or endorse Cuban government policies.
Is your project about journalism or is it advocacy?
This is an investigative journalism project that advocates for greater openness and accountability in the U.S. government. I am not trying to ‘out’ dissidents who accept funds.
But aren’t government agencies accountable?
U.S. Government Accountability Office reports in 2006, 2007 and 2008 were critical of U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, democracy programs. Some lawmakers, including Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., have had questions and concerns about the programs’ effectiveness. USAID does not make public detailed reports showing how it spends democracy funds. Neither does the State Department. Government officials may say that $1 million went to a private contractor, but then little is ever known about whether the money reached Cuba. Subcontractors who receive funds generally are not identified. This lack of transparency persists despite President Barack Obama’s promise to create a more open government.
Are you trying to identify each individual in Cuba who accepts U.S. funds?
No, I am only trying to get a better idea of whether democracy programs are effective. During interviews, some Cuban dissidents choose to discuss their own personal circumstances related to democracy aid. However, I’m not concerned with whether an individual accepts U.S. aid. My focus is more general.
Are you researching private efforts to boost basic freedoms in Cuba?
No. I’m concerned with U.S.-government funded programs, not people-to-people or private efforts to expand freedom in Cuba, although sometimes there is an intermingling of government and private democracy money. My main focus is the transparency and the accountability of U.S. programs.
What else is there to know about democracy programs?
I am interested in hearing about not only the challenges, but the successes in promoting democracy in Cuba. I would like to hear from USAID officials, private contractors and others who have insights into the programs. I am interested in knowing how much aid reaches the dissidents who risk their freedom and whether any of the money is wasted. And I think it’s important that dissidents and bloggers – whether they receive money or not – have the opportunity to tell the world about their struggles to promote change.
Why should we care about Cuba?
Cuba is a small nation, about the size of Pennsylvania, but it has played a pivotal role modern U.S. history. Many key events have Cuba connections, including the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Cold War.
Did any other organizations inspire you to create the Cuba Money Project?
I have gotten valuable tips from members of Investigative Reporters & Editors, or IRE, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting. I’ve also drawn ideas from The National Security Archive, a non-profit research institute in Washington, D.C. Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project, has spent 25 years obtaining and publishing declassified documents related to Cuba. (See my interview with Kornbluh). Even today, there is great interest in these documents, which are decades old. Rather than wait 25 years to learn more about recent U.S. government activities in Cuba, I decided to begin requesting documents and tracking activity now.
How do you finance the Cuba Money Project?
The Pulitzer Center, a non-profit journalism organization in Washington, D.C., awarded me grants in 2010 and 2011 to help pay hard costs associated with travel to Cuba and in-country reporting. I received a total of $5,000. I also sell freelance stories to help defray costs, but that doesn’t cover all the expenses associated with this project. I am interested in finding additional funding to help sustain and expand the project.
What is your background?
I have been a journalist since 1983 and have worked for seven daily U.S. newspapers.
When did you first travel to Cuba?
I went to the island 29 times while on assignment for the Dallas Morning News from 1994 to 2000. I opened the newspaper’s Havana bureau in 2000 and ran it until the newspaper closed it in early 2005. These days, I go to Cuba once or twice per year.
Have you ever received money from the U.S. government?
Yes, several times.
In 1981-82, I received a Fulbright grant to carry out a study in Ecuador.
In around 1997, I traveled to Managua, Nicaragua to conduct two-day workshop for journalists. The U.S. government financed the trip.
I also went to San Jose, Costa Rica for a few days in the late ’90s and ran a journalism workshop. The U.S. government paid for travel and lodging and gave me a stipend of several hundred dollars.
Why do you generally post entire interviews rather than cherry-picking a few quotes like a lot of the big, mainstream media outfits?
It seems somehow unfair to spend an hour talking to someone and then use one quote, which could easily be taken out of context. That’s why I prefer posting entire interviews. It contributes to a healthy exchange of ideas and helps engage readers.
And I need all the help I can get from readers. I have scarce resources and am not backed by any big media companies. It only makes sense to share with readers the stories I am pursuing and what sources are saying even before the stories are done.
This style of reporting is known as “beat blogging.” It’s a way for journalists to get instant feedback, make new connections and improve the overall quality of the reporting and the final product. Here’s what NYU professor Jay Rosen said about beat blogging in 2009:
Some have called this the “journalism of the inbox.” It’s editorial production, social media style. The ultimate promise of such a system–and we’re not there yet–is to bring lots more people, with their beat-specific knowledge, connections, interests and talents, into the production of good reporting, quality features, great posts: better stories!
My goal is to create a forum where people can read unfiltered opinions on democracy programs. Cuba is a controversial, polarizing issue. I would like people on all sides of the issue to feel free to express their views – preferably without making personal attacks or unsubstantiated claims.
What is your policy on anonymous sources?
I would prefer not to use anonymous sources, but some people won’t talk unless their identity is protected. I will use anonymous sources when they contribute to a greater understanding of the story.
What is your corrections policy?
My policy is to correct errors promptly. Please let me know if you see a mistake on the website and I will correct it.