The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, rejected complaints in December that politics influenced its decision to award $3.4 million to a human rights group linked to the Cuban American National Foundation.
According to a Dec. 19 story in the Miami Herald, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., had objected that USAID gave money to the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, a group associated with the CANF. He said U.S. democracy funds “should be provided only to organizations with strong experience and proven track records” on the island. He said:
It would be a disgrace if the Obama administration broke with tradition and used a penny of that critical funding to reward political cronies.
Mark Lopes, USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator for Latin America, denied the accusations of favoritism. He told the Herald that a “technical evaluation committee” is in charge of picking grant winners.
Politics didn’t play a role in the selection, said Lopes, a former aide to hardline Cuban-American Sen. Bob Mendendez, D-N.J. Lopes said:
The criteria for competing for USAID funds is included in the grant application … This is a technical process based on the merits of the proposals submitted. No political appointee had any role in the selection process.
Joe Garcia, former director of the CANF, told the Cuba Money Project that Diaz-Balart and other hardline lawmakers have gotten their way for years as USAID grants have been steered to groups they favor. They are upset now, Garcia contends, because a grant went to an organization they don’t support.
Days after the Herald story was published, former Senate staffer Fulton Armstrong called on the U.S. government to clean up USAID’s Cuba programs and negotiate the release of Alan Gross, an American subcontractor who is imprisoned in Cuba.
In a letter published in the Miami Herald on Dec. 25, Armstrong wrote:
As USAID subcontractor Alan P. Gross marked his second year in a Cuban prison for carrying out secret “democracy promotion” operations, White House spokesman Jay Carney demanded his immediate release and gloated: “Cuban authorities have failed in their effort to use Gross as a pawn for their own ends.”
The message is simple: Gross is our pawn, not the Cubans’. The administration’s signals throughout the Gross affair have been clear. To Havana, it’s been “no negotiation.” To Gross, “tough luck.” And to Americans who think our 50-year Cuba policy should be reviewed, it is, “Don’t hold your breath.”
When a covert action run by the CIA goes bad and a clandestine officer gets arrested, the U.S. government works up a strategy for negotiating his release. When a covert operator working for USAID gets arrested, Washington turns up the rhetoric, throws more money at the compromised program, and refuses to talk.
Armstrong, a former CIA analyst, knows about covert operations. He also spent three years as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s lead investigator into the political operations of the State Department and USAID in Latin America. He wrote:
Like the other millions of dollars we have spent to topple the Cuban government, these programs have failed even to provoke the regime, except to arrest Gross and hassle people who have accepted assistance from other on-island operators.
Our policy should be based on what’s effective at promoting the U.S. national interest — peaceful, democratic and evolutionary change — not engaging in gratuitous provocations.
Fulton Armstrong’s letter drew a quick response from Mark Feierstein, USAID’s assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean, and Michael Posner, the State Department’s assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. They complained that Armstrong’s letter “contains several errors.” In a letter published Jan. 4 in the Miami Herald, they wrote:
Most important, the U.S.-backed activities in support of democracy and human rights in Cuba aren’t secret, covert or classified. The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development regularly brief Congress, and program descriptions are posted on both websites. The programs, which began during the Clinton administration and are comparable to international efforts in support of democracy elsewhere provide humanitarian support to dissidents and their families, strengthen civil society and facilitate the flow of information to, from and within the island. Early on in the Obama administration, we instituted new oversight measures to help ensure the maximum effectiveness of taxpayer dollars in these competitively awarded programs.
As President Obama has said, “The people of Cuba deserve the same rights, freedoms and opportunities as anyone else.” Instead, the article urges acceptance of the Cuban regime’s laws, many of which are inconsistent with international norms and prohibit Cubans from exercising human rights such as freedom of expression and assembly. Such appeals would have been dismissed out of hand when dealing with authoritarian regimes of the past in Latin America.
As we continue our work in support of the internationally recognized human rights of the Cuban people, the United States continues to call on Cuban authorities to immediately release Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who has been unjustly detained for more than two years for helping Cubans access the Internet.
Earlier, on Dec. 2, the Cuban mission to the United Nations issued the following statement about Gross:
Alan Gross is not in prison because he was assisting the Jews in Cuba to connect to the Internet. All synagogues in Cuba have access to the Internet; they have had it before Alan Gross visited Cuba.
Alan Gross was tried in observance of all guarantees; he was tried because he violated Cuban laws while implementing a covert program financed by the U.S. government and aimed at disrupting the constitutional order in Cuba. During his visits to Cuba, Gross never told the persons he contacted that he was working for a U.S. government program.
The undercover activities conducted by Alan Gross in Cuba constitute crimes in many countries of the world, including in the United States.
The Cuban government has conveyed to the U.S. government its willingness to find a humanitarian solution to the Gross case on reciprocal basis.
On Dec. 23, Cuban authorities announced they were pardoning 2,900 prisoners, but Gross wasn’t among them.
Also in December, the subcontractor’s wife, Judy Gross, stepped up her efforts to secure her husband’s release, protesting outside the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. She said in a statement:
To receive news in the middle of Hanukkah that the Cuban authorities have once again overlooked an opportunity to release Alan on humanitarian grounds is devastating. Our family is simply heartbroken.
In Havana, the Associated Press reported that two Jewish leaders met with Gross to celebrate Hanukkah. They lit candles, ate potato pancakes and passed around chocolate coins.
Gross was “in good spirits and fine health, but anxious to get home to his family and disappointed he was not included in a massive prisoner amnesty announced by President Raul Castro last week,” the AP’s Paul Haven wrote.
Jewish leader Adela Dworin told the AP:
His health is very good. He has gained some weight. He’s not fat, but he’s not so thin anymore.