Freedom House gives back Cuba funds
Posted on Friday, 06.10.11
Freedom House gives back Cuba funds
The democracy-advocacy organization says receiving USAID funds for Cuba
programs is conditioned on providing too much risky information that
could be leaked to Havana.
By JUAN O. TAMAYO
Complaining that the U.S. Agency for International Development is asking
for risky information about how its Cuba democracy funds are spent, the
Freedom House advocacy group has surrendered a $1.7 million grant from
Information about the identities and travel plans of the people involved
in its Cuba programs could be leaked to Havana, said Daniel Calingaert,
deputy director of programs at Freedom House.
"We take very seriously the need to be accountable for these programs,"
Calingaert said. But the USAID requests for information are "not just
onerous. They really raise the risk of what we do, especially in the age
The U.S. programs are designed to support peaceful civil society
activities in the communist-ruled island, but Cuba has branded them as
subversive and made it illegal to deliver or accept the U.S. assistance,
requiring what USAID calls "discretion."
USAID subcontractor Alan P. Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence
in Havana on charges he violated the country's sovereignty by delivering
at least one satellite telephone to expand the Internet access of Cuba's
tiny Jewish community.
Controls over the funds have been tightened in the past two years, after
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., stepped
up complaints that the Cuba programs were ineffective and all but
designed to provoke Cuban repression.
Last month, Kerry asked for a detailed list of recipients of USAID and
State Department funds for the Cuba programs. He did not get the
information, amid concerns that the information would fall into the
hands of the Cuban intelligence services.
Freedom House said it is going ahead with its two current grants from
the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor,
totaling $1.3 million, to carry out some polling in Cuba and work in the
field of youth culture.
But it is surrendering the $1,699,394 it was to receive for the last
year of a three-year, $5-million USAID program, Calingaert said Thursday
in a phone interview from Freedom House headquarters in Washington.
The program was designed to work primarily in the field of human rights
documentation, showing activists how to move beyond simple alerts to
abuses to gathering evidence and organizing case files, as well as to
support digital platforms such as blogging or Twitter, Freedom House noted.
USAID's official description of the program in a document issued this
year referred vaguely to focusing the funds on "increasing access to
information to Cuban civil society groups through new media initiatives
that include technical assistance and training."
The problem with the $1.7 million installment, Freedom House said, is
that USAID added a requirement for the prior vetting and approval of
every contractor and subcontractor involved in the Cuba program.
"That means everyone we send to Cuba" to deliver the USAID assistance,"
said Calingaert, "and that prevents us from running an effective program."
Freedom House said it spent four month negotiating with USAID on how it
could meet the new requirements without endangering its Cuba operations,
but in the end decided it was best to simply give up the money.
"I defer to Freedom House as to the reasons why they chose" to forgo the
money, said Mark Lopes, USAID's deputy assistant administrator for Latin
America and the Caribbean. "We apply the same rules to every partner,
these are not new rules, and we are committed to transparency and
accountability in all of our programs."
One other recipient of USAID's Cuba funds is believed to have agreed to
provide the required information in writing, while two others are
providing only verbal reports, according to people involved in the
programs. They asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
In a statement issued Friday, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fl., blasted
Kerry for his continued blockage of USAID and State Department efforts
to spend another $20 million for the Cuban programs — money approved by
the full Congress in 2008.
Kerry has offered to lift his "hold" if the amount is cut by $5 million
— including the $1.7 million that would have gone to Freedom House.
State and USAID officials have not replied to the offer.
Created in 1941 with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt to counter the
spread of Nazism, Freedom House is one of the oldest U.S. democracy
advocacy groups. After World War II it began working to spread democracy
as the best way to fight communism.
After the Cold War ended, it worked to expand freedom in countries ruled
by dictatorships, according to its Web page, and in 1995, its office in
Hungary began sending to Cuba "books, medicines and experts on
It now has offices in Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Bosnia, Serbia, Jordan,
Mexico, and several countries in Central Asia, and worked closely with
groups in Ukraine and Serbia "that were responsible for peaceful
democratic revolutions," the page added.