Friday, June 15, 2007

More on USAID democracy programs

I’m trying to get a precise reading on the action by the House Appropriations Committee regarding Cuba democracy programs. I reported on Tuesday that the figure was $5 million, then corrected that figure to $9 million. El Nuevo Herald then reported that only $5 million was provided and that the Committee is directing the Administration to present its strategy and spending plan before the funds are disbursed.

This initial committee action has provoked discussion in Miami, and I hope it provokes a lot more.

On last night’s Polos Opuestos on Miami’s MegaTV, Maria Elvira Salazar hosted three U.S. government grantees and an official of the Cuban American National Foundation, which sends private support to Cuba.

Salazar seemed to assume that the programs are intended only to help the dissidents. In fact, their purpose is broader. She asked what would happen if Congress approved a reduced budget for these programs, and the answer is simple: the Administration would have to choose. Should the funds go to humanitarian aid for families of political prisoners? To material aid to dissidents? To finance conferences and organizations in Europe? To build solidarity networks in Latin America? To information and research programs?

Salazar’s persistent questioning exposed some of the oddities of the program.

One grantee said, unapologetically, that among his many purchases he bought one box of Godiva chocolates and a few cans of crabmeat and sent them to Cuba, and that Cubans, as much as anyone else, have the right to eat those things. Great – and if he were talking about his own money, that would be the end of the story. But U.S. taxpayers might ask why they are asked to pay so people abroad can exercise the right to eat crab, and how in this case it contributes to democracy in Cuba.

The same grantee bought a mountain bike and sent it to Cuba. How, Salazar asked? Via diplomatic pouch, was the answer. So this is how the program works, for mountain bikes, books, and lots of other goods: The U.S. government decides it wants to aid Cubans. It sends money to organizations in Miami, who go shopping. They buy goods and send them back to the government, which sends them to the U.S. Interests Section, through the unclassified diplomatic pouch, and the U.S. diplomats take it from there. That is, after Cuban employees of the Interests Section handle the cargo and get everything organized.

Is that clever, or what?

Salazar asked why U.S. grantees are allowed to send only goods, no cash, to recipients in Cuba. She was referring to a decision made by the Clinton Administration and left untouched by the Bush Administration. That’s a good question, considering that the government grantees ship goods to Cuba that are available in Cuba, and they pay up to $20 per pound to ship them.

Another question is whether a government program of this type would be necessary at all if there were no U.S. restrictions on travel, remittances, and gift parcels to Cuba.


leftside said...

Thank you for connecting the dots on this boondoggle. It seems our Congress finally has gotten the picture.

I can't help but ask what types of "pro-democracy" assistance do you think the US should allocate? Personally, I think the best think to promote more democracy in Cuba is to begin normalizing relations and get out of the internal affairs alltogether. They can promote all the conferences and research institutes they want - in Miami or wherever. But no money should be spent in Cuba, not even aid, until things are normalized.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Fidel, the only boondoggle afoot is your attempts to survive with U.S. economic support....

leftside said...

I'll take that as a compliment anon. Cheers.

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