Thursday, November 16, 2006

Cuba thwarts U.S. efforts to help dissident

Miami Herald
posted on Thu, Nov. 16, 2006

Cuba thwarts U.S. efforts to help dissidents
The United States has spent $7 million to teach Cubans journalism and English and to educate children of dissidents. But the efforts have fallen short.

John Virtue crammed everything a reporter needed to know into a clandestine workshop for independent journalists in Havana four years ago. But he just couldn't squeeze in the ethics lessons.

Manuel David Orrio, a student with a limp, eagerly volunteered to teach the ethics class for Virtue, director of Florida International University's International Media Center.

On March 14, 2003, Orrio taught the course at the Havana home of then-U.S. Interests Section chief James Cason. Four days later, the Cuban government launched its biggest crackdown on dissidents and independent journalists in years. Seventy-five were imprisoned -- including 26 independent journalists.

Among the communist regime's star witnesses: Orrio, who was really a Cuban agent.

''He'd been under cover, an independent journalist for 12 years,'' Virtue said.

FIU is among a handful of American universities that have received more than $7 million in the past decade from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to train Cuban journalists, teach Cubans English, study property-rights issues and educate the children of dissidents at U.S. colleges.

But USAID's academic effort has fallen short of its mark, according to federal records, university reports and interviews with dozens of academic and U.S. experts. For example:

• FIU has received $1.6 million from USAID since 1999 to train journalists. As many as 214 students have taken a 2 ½-hour workshop or correspondence course or video conferencing. As of August, only four Cubans have completed all the required courses.

• Georgetown University has received $400,000 in scholarship grants to teach at least 20 Cuban students. USAID promised $400,000 more for other scholarships. In three years, Cuba has allowed only one student to leave for Georgetown.

• Loyola University in Chicago received a $425,000 grant from USAID in 2004 to teach English to Cubans on the island. It has yet to teach anyone under that program. Loyola suspended the program after its Cuban partners objected to the USAID connection.

• Creighton University in Nebraska received a $750,000 grant from USAID last year to study Cuba's confiscation of properties and create a model tribunal for property claims after Fidel Castro dies. Some Cuba experts say it's a waste of money -- because Creighton had no experience in Cuba-related property-rights research.

''I just want an opportunity for Cubans to come here, back and forth,'' said Adolfo Franco, the director of USAID's program for Latin America and the Caribbean. ``But you know what? The standard should be applied across the board in a fair way and not dictated by the Cuban government.''

Although its academic successes are few so far, USAID stands to garner up to $10 million more, thanks to the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba II, a group convened by President Bush and headed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

The commission has recommended spending $80 million more in the next two years for humanitarian aid, education, exchanges and scholarships for Cubans studying in the states.

Peter Orr, the first director of USAID's Cuba program, said USAID funding to universities is a waste: ``If you really don't want to achieve anything with the money, you throw money at a university who says we're going to have an exchange program, and they go ahead and give the grant, even though anybody who knows anything about Cuba knows it won't work.''


Throughout the seven years that FIU has tried to train journalists, the Cuban government has routinely blocked educators from visiting the island. Virtue, who held classes in Havana just once, tried to train Cuban students in third countries -- only to have the Cuban government withhold exit visas.

FIU resorted to training by mail, and now also video-conferencing from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, where independent journalists attend a live session.

''I think we have shown good results for it,'' Virtue said.

Among the successful graduates is Claudia Márquez, who left Cuba two years ago for Puerto Rico and runs her own website and publishes stories on other Internet sites.

Said Márquez -- one of the four independent journalists who completed the program after studying journalism, ethics and investigative reporting: ``It was a huge opportunity, and I appreciate it very much.''

But some of the would-be Cuban journalists say the program can be frustrating.

''I know many colleagues from the independent press in Cuba who registered [for the FIU course], sent in their work and nothing ever happened,'' said Juan Gonzalez Feble, an independent journalist in Havana, in a recent telephone interview. ``We never heard from them again.''

Virtue said many of the students may have sent in assignments and paperwork to be evaluated, but Cuban agents probably confiscated their work.


Because FIU's International Media Center is funded by USAID, it is not allowed to pay journalists in Cuba with government funding for their work, a policy that frustrates the program's directors. The center also edits work produced by independent reporters on the island and looks for publications outside Cuba to publish those reports.

''Many of the people dealing with Cuba, including many in the government, find it very frustrating not to be able to pay the journalists,'' Virtue said.

''It's great that the U.S. is helping the people of Cuba to achieve democracy,'' Feble said. ``They have to remember that the theater of operations is the island of Cuba. It's not Miami.''


The University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies has received more money than any other academic institution to promote democracy in Cuba, about $2.5 million.

The program has produced several forums and about 35 research papers on what a post-Castro Cuba might encounter.

Roger Noriega, former undersecretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, said the USAID program should focus on groups that are helping people inside instead of academic studies.

''Frankly, I'm less interested in studies,'' Noriega said. ``My experience has been that these stacks of materials end up on people's bookshelves.''

The Cuba Transition Project, as the UM grant is named, is headed by UM professor Jaime Suchlicki. He has been a key player in the USAID strategy to try to democratize Cuba, managing more U.S. pro-democracy money than any other person as of 2005 -- more than $7 million since 1999.

About $5 million of those funds went to Cuba OnLine, a venture that published a newsletter, Sin Censura -- Without Censorship -- and specialized in mailing anti-Castro material to the island.

Part of Suchlicki's salary at UM is reimbursed with federal funds from the Cuba Transition Project; he also received a $2,000 monthly salary from USAID-funded Cuba OnLine, a program he said expired in September. And he hosts a show called Opiniones on Radio Martí, for which he is paid $100 a show, earning about $18,000 the past three years, federal records show. Suchlicki said he began the program after he was paid between $1,000 and $2,000 as a subcontractor for a consultant, Herbert Levin, hired by the Office of Cuba Broadcasting to analyze proposed programming changes.

''Nobody is going to buy me for $100 or $1,000. I'm an independent thinker,'' Suchlicki said.


In Washington, Georgetown University had picked 20 Cuban students out of almost 400 applicants for scholarships, but only one has attended -- because the Cuban government won't let anyone else leave the island to study.

Georgetown spokesman Erik M. Smulson said in an e-mail that the 20 students were chosen ``on the basis of their leadership potential and academic aptitude.''

Georgetown has spent about $112,000 of the $400,000 for the one student's expenses, plus administrative costs of the program. A typical Georgetown student spends $48,000 a year to attend. The rest of the grant is still active, Smulson said.

USAID and Georgetown refused to provide copies of the grant application or to name the student.

Franco, the director of USAID's program for Latin America and the Caribbean, said the agency should not cease trying to give scholarships to Cuban students because the government doesn't let students out.

''The [proof] of the pudding in here is that the government of Cuba is scared to death to give an opportunity to the Cuban people to come to the United States and return to Cuba,'' Franco said.


At Loyola University in Chicago, government and university officials in 2004 hailed the signing of a two-year, $425,000 USAID grant, for an exchange program for Cuban students called the ``Henry Hyde Program of People-to-People Development.''

Attending the ceremony: U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., a Loyola alumnus and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and Franco.

The goal: teach English as a second language to people in Havana.

Loyola's Cuban partners refused to participate because Loyola was getting U.S. government money -- even though the Chicago school pledged that its program was apolitical. By April 2005, Loyola dropped the program but kept the grant in hopes of reviving the program.

When there was no U.S. government money involved, students at the Jesuit university taught English for two-week intervals at Centro LaSalle, a Catholic center in Havana.

Loyola and USAID refused to provide copies of the grant application. Hyde didn't return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.


At Creighton, USAID gave the law school in Nebraska a $750,000 grant last year to study the issue of property restitution for Cubans who lost land to Castro's revolution. USAID's Franco graduated from Creighton Law School.

USAID spokeswoman Jessica Garcia said Franco did not influence the award. She also said the agency seeks grant applications, and a government interagency committee reviews, ranks and recommends applicants.

''Creighton won the award through the competitive [bidding] process,'' Garcia said in an e-mail. USAID would not specify what other institutions bid for the grant.

A Government Accountability Office audit released Wednesday said, ''the USAID Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean authorized the negotiation of awards for both unsolicited and solicited proposals.'' The audit also said USAID's Cuba program office, which is overseen by Franco, ``recommends USAID democracy assistance awards.''

Creighton Law School Dean Pat Borchers acknowledged the university had no experience in Cuba property research but said the school is qualified to produce the report. Two of Creighton's seven grant researchers speak fluent Spanish, Borchers said. He said he wrote a law school case book that included ''materials'' on the 1996 Helms Burton law, which governs U.S. policy toward Cuba. And some in the research team also have experience in conflict resolution law, Borchers added.

Creighton researchers have traveled to Miami to consult experts, Borchers said. One of them is Nick Gutierrez, a local lawyer who has established a niche practice representing people who want their property back or compensation for their loss.

''I think they need some guidance,'' said Gutierrez, who said he met with Creighton representatives at a Cuban American Bar Association conference in June. ``I am surprised that they [Creighton] got it [the grant]. I'm not so surprised when I see that Adolfo Franco from USAID is an alumnus.''

Franco said through a spokeswoman that he ''played no role whatsoever'' in the award.

Gutierrez said Creighton's distance from the exile community can help it come up with a credible report. If such a report came from a South Florida institution, Gutierrez said, ``maybe people would feel it's not completely independent because it might be a mouthpiece for the Cuban exile community.''


Another U.S.-funded organization that helps promote democracy in Cuba -- The National Endowment for Democracy -- won't fund universities because administrative and overhead costs run as high as 65 percent at universities, said NED Vice President Barbara Haig.

''Is there a shortage of research on Cuba? I don't think there really is. It's just very painful to pay that kind of indirect cost rate,'' said Haig, adding that other programs keep administrative expenses at one-third those rates.

Georgetown declined to specify those costs, and Loyola did not respond to an e-mail request. Creighton officials said their program's indirect costs were 42 percent, and FIU's international media program's indirect costs were 24 percent.

Julio Aliaga Pesant, an independent journalist and former University of Havana professor expelled two years ago for his political beliefs, said the U.S. should spend the money inside Cuba.

''I think that with one-tenth of what the U.S. government gives to exterior projects, they'd subvert the government in Cuba if they got it to the right groups and people here,'' Aliaga Pesant said.

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