By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 25, 2009; A03
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.
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.