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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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Since Cuba democracy program took off in the mid-1990s, it has had a cloak-and-dagger flair, providing grants to nongovernmental groups that sent shortwave radios, laptop computers, photocopiers, books and other items into the Communist country, often in the suitcases of volunteers posing as tourists. Some grant money also goes for humanitarian aid for dissidents' families, and for activities outside Cuba focused on its human-rights record and the post-Castro transition.

In the past two years, the U.S. government has increased its efforts to slip technology into Cuba, as new rules allowed Cubans to buy cellphones and laptop computers. Access to the Internet remains restricted and expensive on the island. Officials at the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have turned more to private contractors, as part of efforts to improve financial accountability. One of them, Bethesda-based Development Alternatives, employs the man now in prison.

State Department and USAID officials have declined to identify the groups involved in the program.

The democracy program is risky for providers and recipients of the equipment. The Cuban government has made collaboration with the program, funded under the 1996 Helms-Burton law, punishable by jail terms of up to 20 years. Cuban intelligence has infiltrated many dissident groups that have been the target of the assistance.

Henken said the program undermined U.S. efforts to build trust with the Cuban government. Speaking at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank this month, he said the Obama administration should promote the flow of information by increasing cultural and academic exchanges and dropping the ban on U.S. tourists traveling to the island -- a position that has gained favor with some American lawmakers.

Other lawmakers, however, scoff at the idea, noting that Cuba's political system hasn't been changed by a flood of European and Canadian vacationers in recent years.

"Facing a regime such as exists in Cuba today, any effort to assert fundamental political rights is going to carry with it risks. But the people who participate in these programs have shown clearly they're prepared to take that risk," said one senior U.S. official, who was not authorized to comment on the record.

Thomas Carothers, a democracy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Cuba was an example of how difficult it was for outsiders to change totalitarian societies.

"In general, the experience of trying to promote democracy, or trying to carry out assistance programs that can facilitate democracy in closed societies, has been a very frustrating experience," he said.


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