Bringing democracy to Cuba: chocolate and perks

Between 1996 and 2005, the U.S. government handed out $75 million for exporting Washington’s version of democracy to Cuba. Because Cuba has laws against citizens taking money from hostile foreign powers, the funds, authorized by the Helms Burton Law of 1996, have had to be dropped off on this side of the Florida Straits.

Grants have gone to political organizations, nongovernmental organizations and universities to support opposition groups in Cuba, provide political information and “humanitarian aid,” and train librarians and journalists. Funding was made available for Cuban young people to study in the United States.

However, Representatives William Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), critics of Bush restrictions on Cuba, asked the General Accounting Office to review operations within what some supporters of Cuba in South Florida refer to as a “cottage industry.” A 63-page report issued Nov. 15 points to negligible results, wasted money or worse.

The U.S. Agency for International Development awarded 17 grants over nine years totaling $37.3 million to 12 Cuba-specific NGO’s, grants worth $20.5 million to 12 regional NGO’s, and $7.6 million to seven universities. USAID on its own initiative continued 28 of 40 grants, augmenting initial funding by an average of 800 percent and extending completion dates. Tellingly, 95 percent of the grants, totaling $61.9 million, were awarded without competition.

The State Department did utilize competitive processes as it divided $8.1 million among four organizations. Grants awarded by the National Endowment for Democracy were off limits for the GOA because of the purportedly private nature of that entity.

The report found that staff and grant managers benefited from extra stipends, lavish reimbursement for travel and meetings, and the selling off of goods intended for Cuba. Bush administration proposals to spend $80 million over two years under its Assistance to a Free Cuba plan add urgency to further investigation.

Rep. Delahunt, soon to be chair of the House International Relations Investigation Subcommittee, has promised to use the GAO findings as a take-off for early congressional hearings. According to William LeoGrande, professor of government at American University, “The money that Congress has allocated [for political change in Cuba] has almost always been spent more in the U.S. than in Cuba, and has really been more a form of political patronage than anything else.”

USAID, for example, awarded Miami’s Florida International University $1.6 million over seven years to train journalists. Some 214 Cuban students began correspondence courses or video workshops but only four of them completed a course, according to the Miami Herald’s Oscar Corral. Georgetown University received $400,000 and anticipated $400,000 more to admit 20 students from Cuba. In three years only one Cuban student has enrolled, at an annual cost of $112,000.

Loyola University in Chicago received $425,000 from USAID in 2004 to teach English to Cubans. No students materialized. In 2005, USAID gave Creighton University $750,000 to devise a model court for property claims in post revolutionary Cuba. Law professors at Nebraska University reportedly know little about property arrangements in Cuba, but Adolfo Franco, director of USAID’s Latin America program, graduated from Creighton.

Florida’s “Group for the Support of Democracy” spent some of its $7 million largesse on computer games for personnel at the U.S. Interests Section to hand out in Cuba. “I’ll defend that until I die,” said executive director Frank Hernández-Trujillo. “That’s part of our job, to show the people in Cuba what they could attain if they were not under that system.”

“Cuban Democratic Action” in Miami sent mountain bikes, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crabmeat and Godiva chocolates to Cuba. Juan Carlos Acosta, the group’s director, explained, “These people are going hungry. They never get any chocolate there.” He bought a chainsaw with taxpayer money to remove a downed tree in front of his office.

Noting that government money is used to pay travelers up to $20 per pound to carry material to Cuba, Rep. Flake told reporters that it would be cheaper instead to get rid of the travel restrictions.

“Our concern is the program’s efficacy,” said Rep. Delahunt at a news conference. He took pains to condemn the repression that supposedly prevails in Cuba and conceded the “challenge” in getting literature and educational material to the island.