Pro-democracy program in Cuba questioned after man detained

Rep. Howard L. Berman called the Cuba program
Rep. Howard L. Berman called the Cuba program "problematic," and Sen. John Kerry called for a review. (Dennis Cook - Associated Press)
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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 25, 2009

The detention of a U.S. government contractor in Cuba has put the spotlight on a secretive U.S. pro-democracy program that ballooned during the Bush administration but has faced persistent questions about its management and effectiveness.

The Cuba program seeks to evade the Communist government's "information blockade" by sneaking computers, cellphones, DVD players and other communications equipment onto the island. Its budget rose from about $3.5 million in 2000 to $45 million in 2008 under President George W. Bush, who made democracy promotion a priority.

Few dispute that tools such as blogs, Twitter and YouTube are cracking the Cuban government's monopoly on information. But the jailing of the American contractor -- who has not been publicly identified -- has highlighted the risk of trying to slip communications technology into police states. It has also revived a debate over whether the U.S. democracy program for Cuba, like a similar one in Iran, can backfire by exposing dissidents to charges that they are U.S. puppets.

"It taints them. It is almost a gift to the Castro regime to do that," said Ted Henken, a sociologist at Baruch College who has studied the growing Cuban "blogosfera."

Since it was launched in 1997, the Cuba program has come under fire for poor management. An audit by the Government Accountability Office in 2006 found that groups receiving $4.7 million in pro-democracy grants had made numerous questionable purchases, including Godiva chocolates and Nintendo Game Boys. In 2008, a former employee of one Cuban American group pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $600,000 in pro-democracy funds.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called this month for a review of the Cuba program, saying it "may have noble objectives, but we need to examine whether we're achieving them." Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in April asking for "a more robust mechanism" to track the spending and results of the "problematic" program.

The Obama administration has continued to support the Cuba democracy program, which received $20 million in 2009 and 2010.

Supporters say that although the program's effectiveness is difficult to measure, it responds to requests from Cubans willing to take risks to exercise basic rights.

"The Castro regime pretends to have a monopoly on truth, and to take care of all the needs of Cuban society. In fact, it doesn't," said Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House, a democracy watchdog group. "And the outside support is important because it gives Cubans greater opportunities to speak their own minds and address their own problems at their own initiative."

Cuban President Raúl Castro said the contractor detained on Dec. 5 was illegally providing satellite communications equipment to civil-society groups. State Department and congressional sources said the man, a Bethesda computer specialist traveling on a tourist visa, was not working with political dissidents but was hooking up members of a community group to the Internet.

"Anywhere else, this would be extremely innocuous activity," said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Still, the case has sparked new tensions in U.S.-Cuban relations, which the Obama administration had tried to improve with steps such as lifting restrictions on family visits to the island. In a speech last weekend, Castro accused the Obama administration of increasing support for "open and covert subversion." The Cuban government has not allowed U.S. diplomats access to the contractor.

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