A Choice to Make on USAID in Cuba
U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Adolfo Franco, then-USAID Assistant Administrator awarding a $1 million grant to the University of Miami's Cuba Transition Project (photo at: http://www.usaid.gov/locations/latin_america_caribbean/images/check5s.jpg)
Thanks to Tracey Eaton for reporting on this interesting comment from Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Cuban american ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, after she met with our Havana U.S. Mission Chief Jonathan Farrar while he was in Washington this week:
My discussions with Mr. Farrar confirmed reports that repression on the island has only increased over the past few months, making it clear that U.S. overtures to the regime remain unanswered. The U.S. must stand firm: democratic change in Cuba must come first, before any further efforts to change or weaken U.S.-Cuba policy. We must redouble our efforts to precipitate a transition to democratic rule in Cuba so that the Cuban people and our nation can feel safe and secure without the looming threat posed by the Cuban tyranny.
There is so much to comment on here that I hardly know where to begin first. I'll put aside the notion that we should keep doing the same thing because we haven't yet achieved any results (which, incidentally, fits Einstein's definition of insanity to a tee). And I'll also pass over the invitation to query what overtures we've really made to Cuba (that weren't more fittingly overtures to the Congresswoman's own constituents), or, what possible threat emanating from Cuba could be of greater concern to her than the threat posed by, say, radicalized Yemenis with explosives in their undergarments?
Instead, I'm curious about Ros-Lehtinen's belief that the U.S. government should "redouble" our efforts at - let's call a spade a spade - regime change in Havana, though she doesn't elaborate on how. Perhaps that is because our chief method of precipitating regime change, $40 million dollars in USAID programming in Cuba, is so fatally flawed. Nothing demonstrates that failure more than the unfortunate case of Alan P. Gross, an American contractor who was arrested in Cuba last month.
Little is publicly known about Mr. Gross's misfortune. The Cuban government contends he was illegally distributing advanced communications equipment in Cuba. The U.S. government says he was working with a non-dissident religious group to help them better communicate with one another and with colleagues outside of Cuba. Both statements may be true.
The program Mr. Gross was contracted to implement was funded by the authority granted to USAID in the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. That Act authorized U.S. government assistance (inside and outside of Cuba) to help bring a political change on the island. In response to the U.S. effort to undermine the Cuban government, the 1999 Cuban Law 88 explicitly made it a crime for anyone in Cuba - Cuban or a foreigner - to carry out activities funded by or in furtherance of the objectives set forth by the Helms-Burton Act. Among the activities it considers a crime: to distribute U.S. government-funded materials. And that makes handing out cell phones and laptops - if the U.S. government is paying you to do it - a crime in Cuba.
Reacting to the arrest last month, blogger Phil Peters wondered whether Mr. Gross was aware of the clear danger he could face in carrying out such activities in Cuba. It's not like the U.S. government didn't understand the risks: Peters dug up a notice written by USAID warning about the Cuban government's opposition to its programs on the island. At this point, there is no way the U.S. government would now fail to adequately warn a grantee of the risks involved in fulfilling a USAID contract in Cuba. And what grantee who gets a warning like that is going to get on a plane headed for Havana?
Which is why I wonder how exactly Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen thinks we should "redouble" our efforts to hasten political change in Cuba? Surely no member of Congress will encourage more Americans to put themselves at such risk. Congressional leaders charged with funding the USAID Cuba program face a choice now. They could continue the program to avoid a fight with the likes of Ros-Lehtinen, or, scrap a program that could otherwise land one of their constituents in jail.