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 Havana 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 Internet, 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 human rights 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.
"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
"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 dissident
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."
Alan Gross, a development consultant awarded a $600,000 grant to foster
communications on the island, was sentenced to 15 years in prison 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 Gross 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 university 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."