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Third Decade of Regime-Change Aid: Washington Tightens Economic Noose and Increases Support to Groups Planning Post-Castro Transition

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By Tom Barry*

Interhemispheric Resouce Center
June 25, 2004

As the November 2004 U.S. elections draw closer, the Bush administration is attempting to solidify political support among Cuban Americans by further tightening the economic noose around Cuba. New policies will increase travel restrictions and clamp down harder on U.S. dollar flows to Cuba in the form of immigrant remittances to Cuban family members. At the same time, Washington is stepping up its plans for a post-Castro government by allocating $29 million in political aid to Cuban and Cuban-American groups committed to the Bush administration's regime-change strategy.


The U.S. government, whether in the hands of Democratic or Republican politicians, has long committed itself to regime change in Cuba. Starting with the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, Washington explored a variety of strategies that employed political violence, including trying to assassinate Castro and offering limited support to a Cuban anti-Castro invasion force. The U.S. government's main strategy, however, was the economic embargo effected in 1963, which it assumed would strangle the communist party government. Instead the embargo has proved largely counterproductive, allowing Castro and the ruling party to charge that Washington not only was opposed to the Cuban government but was also unconcerned about the welfare of the Cuban people.

Regime Change through Political Aid

For more than two decades, the United States has also implemented a political aid and propaganda campaign to unseat Castro. Last month the administration's Commission on Assistance for a Free Cuba recommended an intensified program involving political aid to dissident groups (both inside and outside Cuba) and a media campaign, opening a third decade of political aid designed to overturn the Castro government. The $59 million program also includes tighter travel and currency restrictions, which have angered Cuba and broad sectors of the Cuban American community.

It's not yet known to which groups the new political aid will flow. However, most close observers believe that the current recipients of political aid from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will be the likely beneficiaries.

Before the "democracy-building" initiatives of the Reagan administration, most U.S. political aid was delivered in the form of covert assistance managed largely by the CIA. In the early 1980s, however, political aid became an overt instrument of U.S. foreign policy, channeled either through the new democracy promotion programs of USAID or through the National Endowment for Democracy, which the Reagan administration created in 1983.

Since its founding NED has served as an instrument of U.S. policy to support Cuban-American efforts to oust Cuba's longtime leader Fidel Castro. Although there is little evidence the democratic transitions can be led by U.S.-funded expatriate groups, Washington not only persists in channeling its aid to U.S.-based groups but now plans to increase the flow of funds to such groups.

Along with Venezuela, Cuba is a primary focus of NED's democratization programs in Latin America. Despite mounting problems with democratic transitions throughout Latin America, NED has focused its recent regional programming on the two countries whose foreign and economic policies are considered by the U.S. government to be most inimical to U.S. economic interests and security.

NED's History of Anti-Castro Aid

In the 1980s and through the Bush senior administration, two of the favored instruments of NED democratization funding in Cuba were the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and the AFL-CIO's American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) and its Labor Committee for a Free Cuba.

The Cuban American National Foundation, based in Miami, is a lobbying and advocacy organization founded in 1981 that disseminates information about economic, political, and social issues in Cuba and in the U.S. Cuban community. One of its major objectives is to pressure Washington to take a hard line toward the Castro government. The foundation's longtime chairman, Jorge Mas Canosa, was described by the Miami Herald as the "most powerful Cuban exile in America," and before his death Mas-watchers asserted that he wanted to replace Castro as the country's head of state should the Cuban leader be overthrown. Mas was a close friend of Felix Rodriguez, a former CIA operative who coordinated air shipments from El Salvador for Oliver North's illegal contra supply network. In fact, North's diaries refer to Mas as a pass-through for money to the contras. The foundation received more than $600,000 in NED grants in the 1984-91 period, which it used to create and finance anti-Castro human rights organizations whose materials are designed to generate international sentiments against the Cuban government. Today, CANF no longer takes the view of the anti-Castro hardliners but believes that political transition in Cuba will be led not by expatriates but by the Cuban people.

Another preferred channel for NED anti-Castro funding in the 1980s and early 1990s was the AFL-CIO. This organization sponsored U.S.-government funded programs around the world through its Free Trade Union Institute (FTUI) and the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD). In 1991, for example, NED funded the AFL-CIO to help "build relationships" with Cuban workers who sought to organize "free" trade unions.

The AFL-CIO has shut down the much-maligned AIFLD and FTUI operations. However, the labor federation's new American Center for International Labor Solidarity (known commonly as the Solidarity Center), which was created after FTUI and AIFLD were dissolved, has continued the previous practice of relying almost exclusively on U.S. government funding for its foreign labor operations, including those with a Cuba focus.

The Bush administration is not known as a strong supporter of organized labor either inside or outside the United States. There's much evidence that labor rights are routinely violated in Cuba and labor organizers routinely arrested. However, Washington has clearly focused its concern for labor rights on countries that resist its hegemonic leadership in the hemisphere. Its funding of the Solidarity Center's Cuban program appears to be driven more by its goal of regime change in Cuba than by any principled posture in defense of international labor rights. The credibility of Washington's appeals to international rights when condemning Cuba are undermined by its own flagrant violation of international law through its attempt to strangle the Cuban economy through the embargo and the new restrictions on travel, investment, and remittances.

The Solidarity Center is one of NED's core grantees, along with the International Republican Institute, Center for International Private Enterprise, and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. Among other NED grantees that are likely recipients of the new political aid recommended by the Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba are the following: Center for Free Cuba, Committee for Support of Independent Farmers' Cooperatives in Cuba, Cuban Committee for Human Rights, Cuban-American Military Council, CubaNet, Federación Sindical de Plantas Eléctricas, Gas y Agua, International Republican Institute, Information Bureau on Human Rights Movement in Cuba, and Revista Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana.

Building Democracy and a Revolutionary Pro-Freedom Movement

Reminiscent of the Reagan administration's support for "freedom fighters" in Angola, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua, the International Republican Institute works most closely with the Cuban Democratic Revolutionary Directorate, whose explicit goal is regime change through the "revolutionary" Cuban "pro-freedom movement." The Republican institute is the Bush administration's main channel of aid intended to further political transition in Cuba.

In 1999 NED launched the World Movement for Democracy that immediately targeted Cuba as one of the world's most repressive governments. Like many other groups allied with the U.S. position, the World Movement for Democracy has not seen fit to balance its critique of Cuban transgressions of international political and labor rights with critiques of Washington's illegal embargo and other restrictions on free international movement of individuals and business in and out of Cuba.

Through its Program to Promote Cuban Transition to Democracy, USAID has granted democracy-building assistance to a similar and often overlapping list of grantees, including Freedom House, Center for a Free Cuba, Institute for Democracy in Cuba, Cuban Dissidence Task Force, International Republican Institute, Grupo de Apoyo a la Disidencia, Acción Democrática Cubana, Cuba Free Press, Florida International University's Journalism Training Program, CubaNet, Carta de Cuba, Partners of the Americas, Pan American Development Foundation, ACDI-VOCA/Independent Agricultural Cooperatives, University of Miami's program for Developing Civil Society, Florida International University's NGO Development Program, American Center for International Labor Solidarity, National Policy Association, Cuba On-Line, Sabre Foundation, Rutgers University's Planning for Change program, International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), and University of Miami's Cuba Transition Planning program.

One of the most bizarre of USAID's grantees in its Cuba program was the U.S.-Cuba Business Council, which, according to USAID, "has sought to become an interlocutor between large U.S. firms and South Florida businesses and Cuba in the eventuality of a free-market transition." Although it claims to support "free-market" principles of development, the business council voiced strong support for U.S. policies that restrict free commercial relations with Cuba. USAID funded the business council to "help the U.S. private sector prepare for Cuba's eventual transition to a free market regime." Before he joined the Bush administration, Otto Reich served as president of the U.S.-funded business council. In November 2000, Reich said, "The U.S.-Cuba Business Council believes that the foreign economic potential of a free-market Cuba represents over $15 and a half billion within five years after a democratic transition." Unlike the U.S.-Business Council and other U.S.-government funded organizations, other U.S. business organizations have advocated a relaxation or an end to the economic embargo.

USAID's 2003 program aimed, among other things, to "build solidarity with democratic and human rights groups on the island," amounted to $6 million—all of which was drawn from the national security-related Economic Support Fund (ESF) of the Pentagon's budget. The allocation for the 2004 program, entitled Civil Society Developed, jumped to $7 million, all of which will also come from the ESF.

USAID signals its own right-wing political orientation in the first sentence of its Cuban program overview, citing the rightist Heritage Foundation's description of Cuba as the second worst "economically repressed regime" in the world after North Korea. In the next sentence it cites the neoconservative Freedom House—a grantee of NED whose directors and staff have been tightly interlinked since NED's founding in 1983—stating that Cuba is among the eleven "most repressive regimes" in the world.

The credibility of USAID—and of the State Department, which oversees USAID's programs—is seriously undermined by its description of Cuba as a terrorist nation, noting that Cuba remains on the State Department's list of terrorist countries, despite lack of any credible evidence that Cuba supports international terrorism.

Chris Sabatini, NED's program officer for Latin America and the Caribbean, told the House Committee on International Relations last year: "The Castro government and those within his regime who may be waiting for change need to realize that, despite Iraq, the world is watching and it stands united in its solidarity with the democratic movement and desire for peaceful change in Cuba."

Unfortunately, the congressional committee did not ask the NED representative any version of the following question: Can U.S. government-funded groups that implicitly or explicitly back a failed U.S. foreign policy based on confrontation and isolation rather than on engagement be effective and credible actors in any political transition supported by the Cuban people?

About the Author: Tom Barry is policy director of the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC)


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