Cat-and-mouse secrecy game plays out daily in Cuba
Posted on Saturday, 04.12.14
Cat-and-mouse secrecy game plays out daily in Cuba
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
Cuban dissident Berta Soler says she and other members of the Ladies in
White were handing out toys to children at Trillo Park in Havana when a
State Security officer detained them and seized the 60 to 70 toys.
Soler said she protested that the women bought the toys legally in
Havana with money received legally from supporters abroad. But the agent
told her, “Berta, don’t play the fool, because you know those toys come
from Miami, the terrorists.”
The March 15 incident reflected the cat-and-mouse game played almost
daily by dissidents, supporters abroad who send them assistance and the
security agents of a communist government that views most such aid —
even toys — as “subversive.”
That’s why, several of the foreign supporters argue, they must use a
measure of discretion when sending aid to democracy, human rights or
Internet freedom activists in Cuba — enough to ensure it reaches the
right people on the island but not so much that it raises suspicions of
“When State Security seizes laptops or even copies of the [U.N.’s]
International Declaration of Human Rights, you have to use some
discretion,” said Frank Calzon, head of the Center for Cuban Democracy
The issue of secrecy in efforts to help Cuba’s civil society hit front
pages last week when The Associated Press reported that the U.S. Agency
for International Development had created a “covert” Twitter-like
platform for Cubans. USAID said the program was not covert, only
“discreet” because of the “nonpermissive environment” on the island.
Calzon said he did not mind talking about the precautions he takes in
helping Cubans because his center no longer receives U.S. government
grants for Cuba programs, and suspects that Havana knows them anyhow.
He stopped keeping important documents in his office after three
break-ins in which thieves rifled through files but took no valuables,
Calzon said. He keeps four shredders in his office and has it swept
occasionally for eavesdropping devices.
Over the years he used foreigners visiting Cuba and other ways to
deliver tens of thousands of shortwave radios, books and human rights
declarations, Calzon said, “all things that would not be a problem in
any normal society.”
But he never revealed the names of the travelers to USAID before they
had left the island, Calzon added. And if he sent cash, he would ask one
activist to distribute the money to others in need, but he never
provided a full list of recipients.
He also preferred to use travelers from the former Eastern Europe
because unlike naïve U.S. citizens, they had experience living in a
communist system and knew how to avoid raising suspicions.
One of his U.S. delivery people, Calzon said, took to Havana a list of
Dos and Don’ts he had written — like avoiding hotel taxis because the
drivers could inform State Security agents. The traveler hid the list in
his hotel room, and it turned up in the official Granma newspaper.
His main precautions, he said, are that he always assumed that sooner or
later everything he did would become public, either through a U.S.
newspaper report or a Havana allegation. “And you pray a lot.”
Helping Cubans “is not a secret operation. It’s not an intelligence
operation. This is strictly for human rights, and we never gather
military information or encourage violence,” Calzon said. “But there is
a word: ‘discretion.’ ”
Maybe it’s not a secret operation, but Cuba has outlawed cooperation
with the USAID programs and sentenced USAID subcontractor Alan Gross to
15 years in prison for delivering USAID-financed sophisticated
communications equipment to Cuban Jews.
The official charge sheets against most of 75 dissidents sentenced to
lengthy prison terms in a 2003 crackdown known as Cuba’s Black Spring
mentioned the U.S. government’s programs in Cuba.
Police regularly seize cash, computers, printers, books, digital
memories and other equipment sent to dissidents from abroad and
intercept emails and phone calls. After Soler filed a lawsuit for the
return of the toys, her lawyer was suspended for six months for
allegedly mishandling other cases.
Freedom House, an independent organization in Washington, returned a
$1.7 million USAID grant for a Cuba program in 2011 because the agency
was asking for too many details on how the money was spent, including
the names and travel plans of participants.
And while USAID insists the Cuba programs are not secret, it offered
applicants for one grant last year the chance to withdraw after it
mistakenly used an unencrypted line to send their document to U.S.
diplomats in Havana for their review.
A dozen other people in Washington and Miami who have handled or
currently handle Cuba programs agreed to broadly describe their concerns
and security measures on the promise of anonymity because of the
sensitivity of the issue. But they declined to provide details of their
One former program supervisor said he sometimes used a widely available
encryption program when chatting online with people on the island.
For phone calls, he added, he used Skype or phones not registered to his
The supervisor of an ongoing program said he keeps the names of his Cuba
contacts away from even the board of directors of his organization, and
has a special password solely for his list of email contacts.
But another person currently involved in a Cuba program said he finds it
“a bit sophomoric” to take such precautions because “I have to assume
that in this day and age any government that wants to find out something
can do it.”
“I am not saying that you post your information on your door,” he said.
“In the end, working for human rights in Cuba is a calculated risk. We,
and the people in Cuba, do it with our eyes wide open.”
Source: Cat-and-mouse secrecy game plays out daily in Cuba – Breaking
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