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    U.S. Cuba programs: the stuff of spies?

    Posted on Wednesday, 05.11.11

    U.S. Cuba programs: the stuff of spies?

    The U.S. government Cuba democracy programs are being revamped to
    address concerns from Congress, which have held up the $20 million budget.
    By Frances Robles

    To the U.S. government aid workers who he suspected were secret agents,
    Cuban professor Raul Capote was "Pablo." He went by "Daniel" with his
    Cuban government contacts, who were spies for sure.

    Now claims that for the six years that he worked with the U.S.
    Agency for International Development (USAID) on educational workshops
    and library programs, Capote was a spook, too.

    "The man started asking, what materials do you need?" Capote said in an
    installment of a Cuban documentary series, Cuba's Reason s. "The
    contacts that came — it was never the same person twice, always someone
    new — started to buy me what I needed for my work: money, camera,
    laptop, memory drives, all kinds of gear to pass information."

    Capote is one of the Cuban intelligence agents recently exposed by
    Havana in its quest to pull the curtain back on one of the most
    controversial elements of Cuban-U.S. relations: USAID democracy
    programs. In a series of videos aired on state-run television and posted
    on the , USAID contractors are shown meeting with alleged
    members of civil society, establishing libraries, arts workshops,
    distributing powdered milk and discussing secret electronic equipment.

    The video series is the latest of a string of blows to the U.S.
    government's Cuba programs, which have struggled to maintain credibility
    while dogged by questions about its spending and mission. Sen. John
    Kerry has frozen this year's $20 million budget, forcing agency
    administrators to revamp the program and its management.

    "These projects are not classified, but they are covert operations in
    Cuba," said Cuba analyst Philip Peters, vice president of the Lexington
    Institute think tank in Virginia. "What these videos show is that
    they've got our number. They watch people come in and see who they meet

    USAID spent nearly $95 million from 2007 to 2010, according to the Cuba
    Money Project website.

    Much of USAID funds go to large companies such as Creative Associates,
    which was awarded $15.5 million in the past two years, according to the

    "The core of the USAID Cuba program remains in providing humanitarian
    support, building civil society and democratic space, facilitating the
    information flow in, out, and within the island," said Mark Lopes,
    Deputy Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean for
    USAID. "These programs are comparable to what we and other donors do to
    support democracy and in repressive societies all over the

    The Cuban government contends that the program is a CIA front aimed at
    propping up civic leaders and getting them to foment revolution with
    high-tech gear, including controversial satellite modems known as BGANS.

    "They don't present themselves as CIA, but as the time goes on, it
    starts to reveal itself," said Captain Mariana, a uniformed officer who
    appears in Capote's Fabricating Leaders video.

    Lopes laughs.

    "We are a development agency," he said, "not an intelligence agency."

    The Fabricating Leaders episode showed surveillance footage of Capote
    with Marc Wachtenheim, the former program director for the Pan American
    Development Fund, an Organization of American States agency that got
    $2.3 million in USAID Cuba grants in 2008 alone.

    Wachtenheim said he always operated his programs — humanitarian aid and
    essay contests on free-market economies — in the open. He does not
    believe his contacts in Cuba were state security agents, but rather
    "otherwise decent people who were 'turned' by the pressure of a
    totalitarian regime."

    "This is an old tactic: go after the messenger, when you can't confront
    the message," Wachtenheim said. "The only surprising thing about these
    videos is how closely they resemble the East German propaganda of the
    1960s. .… Isn't it curious that the same people who claim that foreign
    assistance programs in Cuba are ineffective, also go to all ends to try
    to discredit them?"

    The PanAmerican Development Foundation issued a statement saying that it
    promotes civil society and private sector development that benefits
    disadvantaged people, and is prohibited from working with political
    parties or intelligence agencies. Creative Associates, which employs
    Caleb McCarry, the top Bush administration Cuba point-man, declined to

    One of the problems with U.S. Cuba programs is that it is difficult to
    track how Creative Associates and other large contractors dole out its
    funds, said Tracey Eaton, founder of Cuba Money Project, which monitors
    USAID Cuba funds.

    "You can definitely say the government makes an effort to keep some of
    this stuff secret," said Eaton, a journalism teacher at Flagler College
    in Florida. "If posting something on the Internet will get a
    in trouble, naturally I would not post it. But if there is a balance
    between transparency in accounting and duty to taxpayers, the government
    leans toward protecting the person and keeping things secret."

    There's reason.

    , a development consultant awarded a $600,000 grant to foster
    communications on the island, was sentenced to 15 years in after
    getting caught sneaking satellite phones and BGANS to Cuba. In the past
    decade, the company that hired him, Development Alternatives Inc.,
    received at least $2.7 billion in USAID funds for projects around the
    world, Eaton's site shows.

    With in jail and Sen. Kerry holding up funding, the Obama
    administration has ordered contractors to stop sending BGANS. The
    government also prohibits contractors from traveling to Cuba more than
    twice a year, and the trips are now vetted by top administrators.

    "Senator Kerry has asked the administration to conduct a review of the
    programs before spending the next tranche of taxpayers' money to study
    their effectiveness, their implications for U.S. policy toward Cuba and
    Latin America, and their implications for Americans and Cubans
    participating in them," said Kerry spokesman Frederick Jones. "The
    review of something like this is an iterative process — a dialogue with
    the agencies involved — and the timing depends a lot on the
    administration's ability to respond to questions. Last year, the process
    took several months, and there was wide agreement that the improvements
    to the programs outweighed the slight inconvenience caused by the short

    Many of the ideas for internal management controls instituted in the
    last year came from Congress, Lopes said.

    . "The fundamental principle of the program continues, but, is it under
    new management? Yes," Lopes said. "Are the programs managed differently?

    Projects have shifted away from the studies that have
    characterized the program.

    "A lot of organizations, including us, had very good intentions.
    Unfortunately, it created a cottage industry here in Miami," said Andy
    Gomez, a senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban
    and Cuban American Studies, which secured some $6 million between 2002
    and 2010. "We would have meetings, and I'd sit there dumbfounded at some
    of the useless programs that were being funded."

    Among them: condoms with the word "Cambio" (change) on them.

    Teo Babun, who heads ECHO Cuba, a religious group that has a $6 million
    USAID grant, said his work is strictly humanitarian.

    "We focus on children, churches and the elderly," Babun said. "We don't
    want to get in the face of the Cubans. It's not what the Cuban
    government says — that we're trying to topple the government or
    encourage a change in the regime. I never heard that as a strategy,
    never saw it written in a memo or heard it said in a meeting."