The Democracy Promotion Paradox – or why Americans hate politics

Sometimes our Cuba policy is so farcical, it’s impossible to keep a straight face.

Consider poor Pedro Adriano Borges, age 68 who, according to the Miami Herald is awaiting trial in federal court.  He is charged with ten violations of the Trading with the Enemy Act, money laundering, and other crimes for which he could spend 35 years in prison if convicted.  The underlying charge is this: he shipped $93,000 worth of goods – including light bulbs and diapers, spices and mayonnaise – to Cuba before Congress authorized food trade with the island.  Opening the market to mayonnaise might be considered a crime against Cuban cuisine, but he should hardly be facing jail time in 2013 for an activity that’s been legal for a decade.

Other times, however, the policy is not just farcical, but so internally inconsistent that it edges in the direction of tragedy.  Consider what we continue to learn about the USAID democracy promotion or regime change programs.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report on the programs this week.  Unlike prior studies, which disclosed that U.S. recipients of the funds were wasting them on Godiva chocolates, cashmere sweaters, and Nintendo Game Boys, GAO said the program was being operated with tighter internal controls.  This – along with headlines like “U.S. government report says America’s democracy programs have improved” –undoubtedly delighted USAID, which just last month read this story in the Washington Post:  “Interference with bid-rigging probe alleged at USAID.”

In fact, Marc Lopes, head of USAID’s Latin American and Caribbean section, told the Herald in a phone interview, “We have increased transparency and financial monitoring, and we are pleased that GAO has recognized that.”

But, remember, the GAO makes judgments about accounting, not about policy.  As the Miami Herald reported, U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $205 million dollars on democracy promotion activities since 1996.  There is no evidence that the programs are achieving their objective of hastening a democratic transition in Cuba.  Phil Peters says it well on his Cuban Triangle Blog:

“So the dollars are well accounted for, but as to whether they are being spent in ways that make a positive difference, well, that’s outside the scope of the report.

“Which is worth noting because in the case of USAID’s satellite Internet program run by Alan Gross and other grantees, the dollars may have been perfectly managed and 100 percent accounted for, but they were 100 percent wasted because these operations were rolled up by Cuban intelligence.”

Wasted and obscured from public view.  There is another version of the report, “sensitive but unclassified,” that GAO won’t allow U.S. taxpayers to see.  Even worse, Tracey Eaton, an investigative reporter with whom our organization is working, discovered that USAID hired an outside contractor to review the programs, which found “questionable charges and weaknesses in partners’ financial management, procurement standards, and internal controls.”   But when Mr. Eaton filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get a copy of the outside audit, USAID fought him and then provided only ten pages of material that “omit most findings, recommendations and other key information, including the identity of the aid recipients named in the audit.”

This is more than a little odd coming from USAID which recently gave a $25 million grant to researchers at the University of Texas…(wait for it)….to develop tools that will “Increase Global Aid Transparency.”

Not only that, Mr. Eaton requested an interview with Mr. Lopes a little more than a week ago, and he declined.

Can someone stop the pain?

Not if what President Eisenhower might have called The Cuba-Industrial Complex has anything to say about it.  Although there was scant public mention of democracy promotion at John Kerry’s confirmation hearing, a new round of questions and answers about the program popped up in the Congressional Record, according to “Capitol Hill Cubans,” an eager supporter of regime change in Cuba.

In testimony apparently provided for the record –questions asked and answered in private – Senator Marco Rubio urged Mr. Kerry not to negotiate with Cuba to obtain Alan Gross’s release; not to shut down or rollback democracy programs; and to scrutinize the already legal people-to-people trips to Cuba.  You can read Kerry’s responses here.  We think he gave Senator Rubio no quarter.  To date, Mr. Kerry has made no public statements about whether he’d change the programs that he tried to reform as a member of the U.S. Senate.

But, the bodyguards surrounding USAID’s Cuba programs – the contractors, the pro-sanctions Senators, the array of publicists and polemicists aligned with them – will continue resisting the scrutiny and long-overdue public debate that ought to take place about these wasteful, ineffective, covert-but-not-classified programs that antagonize Cuba and which turn Latin America more broadly against us.

We are reminded of what E.J. Dionne wrote in “Why Americans Hate Politics” –

“With democracy on the march outside our borders, our first responsibility is to ensure that the United States becomes a model for what self-government should be and not an example of what happens to free nations when they lose interest in public life.”

Such is the democracy promotion paradox.


Charter flight company temporarily discontinues flights between Los Angeles and Havana

Cuba Travel Services announced that it will stop chartering flights from Los Angeles to Havana, reports the Los Angeles Times. According to a press release from the company, projections for travel between LAX and Cuba has decreased 40%, partly due to license processing delays from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. The Los Angeles – Havana flight was the only regular, direct flight to Cuba outside of Florida. The release adds that the LAX flight depended on non-family licensed travelers going on people-to-people and educational trips, unlike flights from Miami which largely transport family members to the island.

Last month, two other charter companies cancelled their flights from Tampa, FL to Cuba, and a “knowledgeable charter industry officials” told the Miami Herald that there are 45 flights per week planned for the month of March, compared to almost 60 weekly flights in September. According to the article, following Obama’s January 2011 travel reforms allowing people-to-people travel, industry officials thought that there would be a surge in non-family travel to the island, but that figures have failed to meet those expectations.

Floridian may spend 35 years behind bars for trading with Cuba

Pedro Adriano Borges, a 68-year-old Cuban , is currently awaiting trial  in Florida under a 1997 indictment charging  him and four other men of illegally shipping 18 containers of goods to Cuba, reports the Miami Herald. Borges faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted: 10 years for violating the Trading with the Enemy Act and 20 years for aiding the laundering of money that was transferred between Miami and Cuba for the shipments. Borges and his accomplices received an estimated $93,000 for the shipments. The containers were sent between 1993-1996 and contained items such as spices, mayonnaise, light bulbs and diapers, according to court documents.

Four years after Borges’ indictment in 2002, the Trade Sanction Reform and Export Enhancement Act was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton. This act altered regulation regarding U.S. trade with Cuba by allowing agricultural good and medicine to be exported to the island.

Sen. Menendez spent significant amount of wealth repaying donor

Senator Bob Menendez (NJ) may have paid between 32 and 87 percent of his wealth in order to return money spent on private flights by one of his major donors, which were never listed as gifts, reports the National Journal. Menendez had also met with top federal health officials on behalf of his donor, eye doctor Salomon Melgen, regarding an $8.9 million penalty Melgen was being ordered to pay for overbilling the U.S. government, reports the Washington Post. As we wrote last week, Menendez was named chairman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February, and adamantly opposed opening of family and people-to-people travel to Cuba.

Berkeley, CA plans to help sister city in Cuba with clean water project

After a visit to Palma Soriano, Berkeley’s sister city in Cuba, by Mayor Tom Bates and State Senator Loni Hancock, Berkley’s local government has put plans in place to help develop a clean water facility in the Cuban city, reports Berkleyside. The proposed project would direct sewage away from the Cauto River, helping to provide clean water for agriculture. The plan still requires permission from the U.S. government, but there are strong hopes that the permission will be granted.


Fidel Castro appears publicly, votes in National Assembly elections

Fidel Castro, age 86, voted in Cuba’s National Assembly elections on Sunday and chatted with local reporters in Havana during his first extended public appearance since 2010, reports Reuters. The former president has voted from home since 2006 when he became ill. During his visit to the voting facility, Castro commented on Cuba’s new role in CELAC, the recent economic reforms, and the health of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez.

 New session of Cuban Parliament to start February 24

The 8th National Assembly of the People’s Power will begin session for a five-year term on February 24, 2013, reports Café Fuerte. Voters took part in the general election for seats in the Cuban parliament and provincial legislatures this past Sunday, electing 612 national delegates and 1,269 provincial delegates, according to Cuba’s National Electoral Commission.  The 612 delegates will designate the members of the Council of State, its president and vice presidents.  Provincial delegates will elect the leaders of the Provincial Assemblies of People’s Power, including their presidents and vice presidents, reports Cuban News Agency.

90% of eligible voters cast ballots, according to Cuba’s National Electoral Commission, and fifty-two candidates were under the age of 35, reports Cuban Triangle. In addition, 50% of the provincial delegates are women, according to a breakdown of the election by Cuba Debate.

Raúl Castro visits areas of Santiago de Cuba recovering from Hurricane Sandy

President Raúl Castro visited areas of the eastern province of Santiago recovering from Hurricane Sandy last weekend, reports Havana Times. This past October, Hurricane Sandy caused billions of dollars of damage, destroying homes and infrastructure and causing power outages throughout the province. President Castro visited a textile mill, a transportation base, a new housing project, and a photo exhibit composed of post-Sandy images and photos of recovery efforts. He also signed additional agreements with Venezuela to continue recovery work, much of which is being funded by Venezuela’s oil company PDVSA, reports Juventud Rebelde.

Cuba grants travel visa to Berta Soler, denies Gisela Delgado

The Associated Press is reporting that Cuba has given Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White, a passport and permission to travel.  Soler said she has picked up her passport and intends to visit Europe to collect a human rights prize that was awarded to the group seven years ago.  At the same time, Yoani Sanchez, the dissident blogger, plans to visit Brazil on February 18th, reports Havana Times. Sánchez also plans to attend a meeting of the Inter-American Press Association on March 8th in Mexico, reports AFP. But, according to the Associated Press, activist Gisela Delgado has been told by migration officials she will not be permitted to travel.


Jamaica-Cuba bilateral agreement helps thousands with eye conditions

Some 1,250 people with various eye conditions were treated during the year 2012 under a bilateral agreement between Jamaica and Cuba which seeks to reduce preventable blindness in adults, reports Jamaica Information Services. Since the inception of the program in January 2010, Cuban doctors have performed over 4,200 surgeries and attended more than 3,790 patients throughout the neighboring island.

Cuba and Finland resume bilateral cooperation

Cuba and Finland signed an agreement to resume bilateral cooperation on Tuesday in Havana, reports Havana Times. The agreement was signed at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry by Pertti Torstila, the Finish Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and Rogelio Sierra, Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister. Finland suspended cooperation with Cuba in 2003 in order to comply with E.U. sanctions on the island after the imprisonment of dissidents, who were subsequently released in 2010 and 2011 following negotiations between Cuba’s government and the Catholic Church.

Cuba Action Alert!

Petition to remove Cuba from State Sponsors of Terrorism List, Latin America Working Group

The Latin America Working Group (LAWG) has created a petition to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List, citing the thin justifications listed on the U.S. Department of State’s 2011 Country Reports on Terrorism.  You can read more from LAWG’s Emily Chow here.

Around the Region

El Salvador Update: January 2013, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Linda Garrett, CDA’s senior El Salvador analyst, gives an update of developments in El Salvador during January, discussing the current status of the gang truce and peace process, as well as human rights developments relating to post-war amnesty. Also included is January’s gang truce chronology.

If you would like to receive our monthly El Salvador Update via email, please contact:

Caracas Connect, Dr. Dan Hellinger, Center for Democracy in the Americas

In this edition of the Caracas Connect, Prof. Dan Hellinger analyzes President Hugo Chávez’s continuing absence from Venezuela, and the upcoming mayoral and municipal elections. If you would like to subscribe to Caracas Connect, please contact:

Recommended Reading

No Godiva chocolates: Sweet news for USAID, Tracey Eaton, Along the Malecón

In his latest post,Tracey Eaton observes that the GAO’s rebuke of the State Department is not likely to stimulate greater transparency or accountability in USAID’s activities in Cuba, saying “both the State Department and USAID remain secretive in their handling of democracy programs in Cuba, and the GAO report does not change that.”

The Monroe Doctrine Turned on Its Head?, Manuel Gómez, CounterPunch

Manuel Gómez, CounterPunch contributor and CDA board member, explores the significance of CELAC in terms of the hemispheric balance of power. Citing both the weakening of the OAS and the desire for deepened ties between CELAC and the European Union, Gómez makes the case that CELAC can act as a hemispheric counterweight to the U.S. despite difficulties among CELAC members.

Breaking the family embargo, Vanessa Garcia, Los Angeles Times

Vanessa Garcia writes about the growing wish of the younger generation of American-born Cubans to travel to Cuba and see the island for themselves, despite the continuing resistance of the older generation.

Cuban perks under scrutiny in U.S. immigration reform, David Adams and Tom Brown, Reuters

David Adams and Tom Brown consider how, if at all, impending broad immigration reform in the U.S. will affect the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA). Noting how even the CAA’s staunchest defenders have reluctantly admitted that the law is unlikely to remain as it is, Adams and Brown predict that the CAA undergo some reforms, but not be eliminated entirely.

Setting Priorities for U.S. Policy in Latin America, Cynthia J. Arnson, Woodrow Wilson Center

In this January 2013 policy brief, Cynthia J. Arnson details a series of recommendations for how President Obama can better conduct relations with Latin America during his second term. Referencing the diplomatic gridlock of the 2012 Summit of the Americas, Arnson suggests that it will be essential for the U.S. to begin engaging in genuine dialogue with the countries of Latin America, especially regarding issues such as gun and narcotics trafficking, and trade within the hemisphere.

French daredevil Alain Robert scales Cuba’s Habana Libre Hotel – without a net, Associated Press

This week, French climber Alain Robert, known as the Spider Man, scaled the 413-foot Habana Libre Hotel in Cuba’s capital. Onlookers cheered as he swiftly added another mileston to his climbing career.

Letter from Cuba: free rides, John Perry, The Guardian

John Perry recounts the common Cuban experience of hitch hiking. Travelling through Piñar del Rio via various forms of transport, Perry gives his readers a brief glimpse of the practicality and the kindness of Cubans in the countryside.

Opinion: The unbearable lightness of Cubanology, José Manuel Pallí, Cubastandard

José Manuel Pallí comments on the discourse in Miami surrounding economic reforms taking place in Cuba, and suggests true engagement. “We fear having to concede that the individualistic and egocentric view of society we celebrate may not be what the Cuban people have in mind for themselves and may opt for a more socio-centric society (…) Only if we find the courage to overcome our fear and roll up our sleeves, truly engaging in the hard, and probably less than fully satisfying work of trying to change the real Cuba from the inside…”

Recommended Viewing

Cuba Not Isolated in Latin America, Paul Jay, The Real News

Paul Jay interviews Alex Main from the Center for Economic and Policy Research about the significance of CELAC in terms of the United States’ influence in the hemisphere. Main notes that even close U.S. allies in the region have begun to align themselves more with blocs such as CELAC rather than U.S. interests. As Cuba takes a leading role in CELAC, the United States should change its policy towards the island if it seeks to avoid further isolation from Latin America.

Cuba’s Tortured Transition, William Ratiff, The Monitor

William Ratiff writes that as Cuba updates its economic model, the U.S. should follow suit, by updating its policy toward Cuba — most importantly, by lifting the embargo.

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