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    U.S. tries to expand flow of information to and from Cuba

    Posted on Monday, 06.25.12

    U.S. tries to expand flow of information to and from Cuba

    The State Department has increased funding for the technology component
    of Cuba democracy programs in a bid to get more uncensored information
    into and out of the island.
    By Juan O. Tamayo

    The U.S. State Department is increasing funding for the technology side
    of its Cuba democracy programs in hopes of expanding the flow of
    uncensored information, despite the Castro government's long-standing

    "In spirit and in money, there's an uptick" in spending for technology
    to increase information flows, said Mark Lopes, deputy assistant
    administrator for Latin American and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency
    for International Development.

    But Lopes added that it is difficult to quantify the year-to-year
    increase in technology funding because of the multi-year nature of the
    programs, which have a total of $20 million to spend in the fiscal year
    that ends Sept. 30.

    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spearheaded a campaign to support
    global Internet freedom in order to overcome efforts by dictatorships to
    control information and accelerate "political, social and economic change."

    "From sports scores to international headlines, the Cuban people should
    be able to pursue their thirst for uncensored information like any other
    citizen in the Americas. This is fundamental, and we are committed to
    help however we can," Lopes said.

    Cuba has outlawed the democracy programs as "subversive," and U.S.
    government subcontractor Alan Gross is serving a 15-year prison term for
    delivering three unregistered satellite phones to the island's Jewish

    El Nuevo Herald obtained a copy of a letter from the U.S. State
    Department to Congress, dated April 26, that details how the department
    intends to spend the $20 million in Cuba democracy program funds.

    The biggest single block of money is the $4 million that USAID's Bureau
    of Latin America and the Caribbean will spend on a "digital democracy"
    program to encourage the use of "innovative technology to increase the
    flow of uncensored information to, from and within the island," noted
    the letter.

    It gave no further details on the "digital democracy" program, and Lopes
    declined to provide them. Such details are usually not made public to
    protect the programs from Cuban bids to torpedo them.

    To avoid another Alan Gross-type incident, the program will avoid
    sophisticated equipment like satellite phones and use only items
    available on the island like computers, DVDs, thumb drives and
    cellphones, said a knowledgeable congressional staffer.

    The letter also listed the following pro-democracy programs:• ?A $1.53
    million allocation to the State Department's Western Hemisphere Affairs
    section for a program to increase Cubans' access to uncensored
    information through "long-distance training on basic information
    technology skills."

    Funds also "will support the purchase of basic information technology
    supplies and provide material support for human rights activities,
    independent journalists and independent libraries on the island."

    • ?A $1.05 million allocation to State's Bureau of Democracy, Human
    Rights and Labor to provide training, equipment and software to
    activists who gather information on human rights abuses, and $750,000
    for "technology-based training" on the use of social media to tackle
    issues such as human rights, impunity and corruption.

    The bureau also will administer $700,000 for each of two programs — one
    for youths that include "innovative uses of technology such as social
    media," and another to educate Cubans on market economies and their
    impact on democracy.

    • ?USAID's Bureau of Latin America and the Caribbean will administer
    $500,000 to support "research on technology options for expanding
    communications" among Cubans and Internet connectivity as part of a
    program titled "The Application of Technology in Democracy Promotion."

    A key issue not detailed by Lopes or addressed in the letter is how the
    U.S. programs can increase technology use in Cuba, which has the lowest
    Internet access rate in Latin America and a tough national security
    system that tries to control all communications.

    Also listed in the letter are $2.9 million for food, over-the-counter
    medicines and other humanitarian support for political prisoners,
    relatives and other "politically marginalized persons'' and $4 million
    to the National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington nonprofit that
    promotes democracy around the world.

    The State Department noted that it will spend $2.87 million out of the
    $20 million to manage the Cuba programs, which tend to generate a high
    volume of paperwork compared to other U.S. foreign aid programs.