MIAMI The U.S. government has a right to finance pro-democracy programs in Cuba but must ensure they are not so aggressive that they wind up hurting dissidents and strengthening the hand of Havana hardliners, analysts and political figures said this week.
"U.S. policy has long been to bring about or hasten a democratic transition in Cuba," said Carl Meacham, former senior staffer on Latin America for the Republican side of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "This is consistent with that policy."
The Associated Press that a U.S. Agency for International Development program sent young people from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Peru to recruit young Cubans to anti-government activism ... under the guise of civic programs from 2009 to 2011.
USAID said the program, which was run by Washington-based Creative Associates International working under a grant from the agency, was designed to "empower (Cuban) citizens to tackle a community or social problem, win a 'small victory' and ultimately realize that they could be the masters of their own destiny."
But the AP report poured fresh fuel on the long-running debate over the U.S. government's Cuba programs. USAID says they are designed to promote democracy on the island but the Cuban government views them as attempts to topple its communist system.
Phil Peters, president of the Cuba Research Center in suburban Washington, D.C., and a proponent of easing U.S. sanctions on Havana, said USAID efforts such as the Creative Associates program can increase Cuban government suspicions.
"This kind of activity can hurt people who are trying to do good work in Cuba, put them under suspicion that they are working on a political program to say nothing of the possible damage to USAID itself around the world," Peters said.
But Mauricio Claver-Carone, an anti-Castro activist in Washington, D.C., defended such programs. "The United States should never apologize for helping the victims of brutal dictatorships throughout the world. To the contrary, it's emblematic of our nation's finest moments," he wrote.
"All countries do this," Meacham said of the Creative Associates International program.
Cuban dissident Jose Daniel Ferrer said the U.S. government is right to help opposition and civil society activists because the Cuban government controls every aspect of their lives, denies them the right to speak freely and even fires them from their jobs.
Opposing the government "would be impossible without the help of friendly democratic nations and Cubans abroad" who pay for items such as printers, cellphones and taxis to meetings, said Ferrer, head of the Cuban Patriotic Union.
Said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.: "The fact that USAID is using measures to promote democracy in Cuba is no secret. We must continue to pressure the Castro regime and support the Cuban people, who are oppressed on a daily basis."
In a statement Monday, USAID said that the U.S. Congress "funds democracy programming in Cuba to empower Cubans to access more information and strengthen civil society ... The work is not secret; it is not covert, nor is it undercover."
The AP reported that the young travelers to Cuba worked undercover and often posed as tourists.
In its statement, USAID said The Associated Press included a paragraph in its report that correctly described the program but "then goes on to make sensational claims against aid workers for supporting civil society programs ... This is wrong."
But some analysts cautioned that Cuba democracy programs run the risk of becoming too aggressive, counterproductive and might even further complicate the already fractious debate on how to improve U.S.-Cuba relations.
The latest report could strengthen hardliners in Havana who oppose economic reforms, and others in the U.S. who support sanctions on Cuba, said Meacham, now Americas program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Teo Babun, executive director of EchoCuba, a Miami nonprofit that has received U.S. government dollars in the past to assist churches in Cuba, said the USAID program, as described, was too "aggressive" for his taste.
"It is clear that USAID supports democracy-building programs," he said. "But it is wrong to engage with or to try to introduce programs that are so aggressive against the (Cuban) government. We cannot be supportive of that."
Babun added, however, that he hadn't ever encountered a USAID Cuba program that was as aggressive as that described in the AP report. "Not in one instance did we see this type of program," he said.
In April, the AP sparked another aid controversy with a report on a previously unknown USAID program a Twitter-like social media platform for Cubans known as ZunZuneo.
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