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Cuba Democracy Program must be preserved


During the confirmation hearings of Sen. John Kerry for secretary of state, Sen. Marco Rubio asked Kerry whether, if confirmed, he would continue his efforts to “halt the Cuba democracy programs” of the Agency for International Development (USAID).

According to the Congressional Record, Kerry’s answer was: “If confirmed I will continue U.S. policies that promote democracy, freedom of expression and assembly, and human rights in Cuba … The Cuban democracy programs are one element of the strategy to support these objectives.”

In March 2009, a report directed to President Obama’s administration made several recommendations on how to improve the effectiveness and oversight of USAID’s Cuba Democracy Program by the Cuban American National Foundation. Those recommendations included more accountability and frequency of auditing, expansion of the pool of grantees, as well as requiring that the majority of funds be spent in direct support of on-island civil society activism.

The administration acted upon our recommendations, with significant positive results, as noted in a 2012 report by the General Accountability Office that praised the progress attained by the program. Equally notable has been the exponential growth in activism, coordination and diversification among leaders and activists of the opposition since 2010 due, in large part, to the support of the Cuban Democracy Program, as well as the aid and interaction with the exiled community once President Bush’s 2003 restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba by Cuban-Americans were lifted.

The Damas de Blanco, a small group short of two dozen ladies going to church on Sunday and marching with gladiolas in their hands, have now become a national movement with more than 350 members active in nine Cuban provinces. They’re providing services to their neighbors, like their recent distribution of toys to children during the feast of the Epiphany. The Cuban Patriotic Union, initially active in Santiago de Cuba, has spread throughout the island with more than 1,000 active members.

This activity, even though strictly nonviolent, has caught the attention of the regime, which in the last six months has doubled the number of imprisoned human-rights activists awaiting trial — and the number of short-time arrests — from 2,074 in 2010 to 6,424 in 2013. The Castro regime’s most intensive propaganda effort has been directed against the USAID Cuba Democracy Program and its elimination, along with Radio-TV Marti broadcasts to Cuba.

This is why we must question the motives behind the recent move by Congress to eliminate funding for the program from the 2014 budget. Are we trying to please Raúl Castro, or is it simply that local Miami politicking takes precedence over the fate of Cuba’s brave internal opposition?

In 1996, when the final touches to the Helms-Burton bill were being discussed, my father, Jorge Mas Canosa, and Sen. Bob Menendez, then a congressman, were adamant that an effective program for helping the development of Cuban civil society be included in the bill. They prevailed, and their wisdom is reflected in the success of the Cuba Democracy Program as well as the maturity, coordination and growth of the independent activism of Cuba’s growing civil society. The invaluable contributions of USAID’s Cuba Democracy Program, and the courageous persistence of the on-island opposition, deserves our commitment to their support and preservation.

Jorge Mas Santos, chairman, Cuban American National Foundation, Miami

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