Two members of Congress have freed $15 million for pro-democracy programs in Cuba, but are still blocking $2.6 million for a contractor whose employee is jailed in Havana, according to Washington officials.
“I am pleased the State Department has finally released these important funds,” Sen. George Lemieux, R-Fla., said in a statement Monday revealing the release of the $15 million.
The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are expected to distribute the funds over the next months to Cuban civil society groups in the form of supplies such as computers, medicines and aid to the families of jailed dissidents.
The release of the funds, help up since early 2009, is likely to anger the Cuban government but brought quick praise from supporters of the dissidents.
“At a time when dissidents are under siege, they need to know that the U.S. stands on their side,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-embargo U.S.-Cuba Democracy political action committee.
State Department and USAID officials did not comment on the funds’ release, but Lemieux staffers said his office was verbally informed of the change last week.
Congress appropriated $20 million for Cuba Democracy Assistance funds in the fiscal year that ends in September, but the funds were not released. Scandals hit the handling of the $20 million appropriated for the previous fiscal year, the Obama administration took months before it appointed a new USAID chief, and then it launched a review of the programs’ effectiveness.
The process hit another bump when Cuban authorities arrested Alan P. Gross, a Potomac, Md., subcontractor for USAID on Dec. 3 after he delivered a satellite telephone system to Jewish groups. He remains in prison, though no charges have been filed against him.
In its final year, the Bush administration shifted some of the Cuba money away from non-government organizations and toward contractors like Gross’ employer, Development Alternatives Inc., arguing that the contractors could better handle the money and avoid other scandals.
But when the State Department and USAID notified Congress earlier this year that they were ready to release the $20 million for this fiscal year, Sen. John Kerry D-Mass and a House member put a “hold” on the money until they could get more information on the programs to be funded.
The two members of Congress lifted their hold on $15 million last week but are continuing to block the other $5 million, according to two Washington officials who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The $5 million includes $2.6 million for Gross’ DAI.
“Contractors were a bad idea from the git-go,” Claver-Carone said, arguing that private firms like DAI have little experience with totalitarian communist regimes like Cuba’s.
Cuba regularly alleges that any U.S. assistance to civil society and dissident groups on the island amounts to an effort to undermine the government, and brands recipients of the aid as “mercenaries.”
Washington officials said Kerry agreed to lift part of his hold after contacts with Cuban-American Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.
“The idea is that at a time when the repression in Cuba has increased so dramatically, it would send a bad message for the U.S. to stand back and let things happen,” said one of the officials.
Asked if they expected Cuban to react angrily to the resumption of U.S. funding for democracy programs, one congressional staffer said, “ If they hated the programs before, they will hate them now.”
The Miami Herald
La Alborada – June 8
On June 7, the press reported two related items. One was that Congress had released $15 million for “pro-democracy programs in Cuba”. The other was that Hillary Clinton had called for the return of Honduras to the Organization of American States (OAS).
How are these news items connected?
A brief history of US concern for democracy in Cuba could begin with the peace accords that ended the Hispanic-American War. The Cubans, whose independence was at stake, were excluded from the talks. The US paid Spain some money and took Cuba as its own colony. Four year later, involved in a fierce war against the Philippines to prevent that nation’s independence, the US allowed Cuba a limited independence, upon condition that its first Constitution especifically provide a right for the US to intervene in the island. (The US did win the war on the Philippines, which it kept as a colony until the end of WWII.)
The Cuban constitutional provisions lasted until after the overthrow in 1933 of Gerardo Machado, a dictator sponsored by the US. Under the new Good Neighbor policy, the US acepted the revocation of the provisions, but maintained the treaty imposed on Cuba to allow the US permanent control of the base at Guantanamo Bay.
Machado was overthrown by Fulgencio Batista, who shortly afterwards, taking control of the armed forces, became the US strongman in Cuba. In 1952, tired of pretending to follow electoral politics, Batista declared himself dictator and began seven years of a bloody, repressive, and corrupt rule.
During all this time, the US raised no concerns about democracy or human rights in Cuba. The Pentagon trained Cuban officers and provided equipment for the armed forces. Banks and businesses cooperated with the dictatorship, and major media reported favorably from the island, a favorite tourist attraction. An embargo of trade with Cuba was unthinkable. Batista was well-liked by the US government until the very end of his rule, when it became obvious that his fall was inevitable. The socialist revolution marked the turning point when the US raised, for the first time, the pro-democracy flag.
The countries of the regions have similar histories. The worst kind of dictators, military juntas, and repressive governments received the blessing and support of the US. Sometimes, elected governments were replaced by US-sponsored military coups: Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Brasil, Chile, Nicaragua, and others. Just this week, new proof was found of US support for the 1971 military coup in Bolivia. Throughout, the US declared that it was acting in favor of democracy. In 2002, when the continent looked forward to a new century without coups, the US sponsored the failed coup in Venezuela.
This background leads to the second news item mentioned. Last year, Honduras, the original banana republic, engineered by the United Fruit Company to become a semi-feudal plantation, was the site of yet another coup in the country’s history of coups.
Unlike in prior years, the American nations rejected the coup with determination. The governments of the region had expected to put military coups behind them forever, and most were in no mood to ignore this one. Honduras, it seemed, was isolated, but soon it became clear that the US was not much troubled by what the State Department refused to call a military coup.
Elections were called in order to whitewash the coup. A vote of sorts was held, practically under martial rule; opposition media were shut down, opposition leaders were killed or detained; opposition women were raped. Less than 50% of eligible voters participated. Even after the elections, with a supposedly clean new government in place, journalists and opposition figures continued to die at the hand of execution squads. Honduras remained isolated, but it could count on one important friend. At the OAS on Monday, Hillary Clinton praised what she called a “free and fair election” of the candidate of the National Party, the most right-wing party in the nation and the home of leading oligarchs. “Now it’s time for the hemisphere as a whole to move forward and welcome Honduras back into the inter-American community,” she said.
President Obama told the nations of the hemisphere at the Summit in Trinidad last year that he did not want to revisit the past –the past briefly recounted above– and preferred to look to the future. A few months later, the coup in Honduras took place, and the US played along with it.
In its role as the self-declared political police for the world, the US continues to intervene in other countries. Sometimes this takes the force of invasions or drone attacks; other times it comes in the form of supporting coups; and in other cases it seeks to create unrest in countries targeted for “regime change.” The latter actions are conducted sometimes through contracted agents or the distribution of “pro-democracy” money.
Mrs. Clinton may find that the governments of the region, practically all of which have experienced one or more military dictatorships even into the 21st Century, are not about to forget the past until they see proof of a lasting change in hemispheric affairs.