Cuban dissident Berta Soler says she and other members of the Ladies in White were handing out toys to children at Trillo Park in Havana when a State Security officer detained them and seized the 60 to 70 toys.
Soler said she protested that the women bought the toys legally in Havana with money received legally from supporters abroad. But the agent told her, “Berta, don’t play the fool, because you know those toys come from Miami, the terrorists.”
The March 15 incident reflected the cat-and-mouse game played almost daily by dissidents, supporters abroad who send them assistance and the security agents of a communist government that views most such aid — even toys — as “subversive.”
That’s why, several of the foreign supporters argue, they must use a measure of discretion when sending aid to democracy, human rights or Internet freedom activists in Cuba — enough to ensure it reaches the right people on the island but not so much that it raises suspicions of major illegalities.
“When State Security seizes laptops or even copies of the [U.N.’s] International Declaration of Human Rights, you have to use some discretion,” said Frank Calzon, head of the Center for Cuban Democracy in Washington.
The issue of secrecy in efforts to help Cuba’s civil society hit front pages last week when The Associated Press reported that the U.S. Agency for International Development had created a “secret” Twitter-like platform for Cubans. USAID said the program was not secret, only “discreet” because of the “nonpermissive environment” on the island.
Calzon said he did not mind talking about the precautions he takes in helping Cubans because his center no longer receives U.S. government grants for Cuba programs, and suspects that Havana knows them anyhow.
He stopped keeping important documents in his office after three break-ins in which thieves rifled through files but took no valuables, Calzon said. He keeps four shredders in his office and has it swept occasionally for eavesdropping devices.
Over the years he used foreigners visiting Cuba and other ways to deliver tens of thousands of shortwave radios, books and human rights declarations, Calzon said, “all things that would not be a problem in any normal society.”
But he never revealed the names of the travelers to USAID before they had left the island, Calzon added. And if he sent cash, he would ask one activist to distribute the money to others in need, but he never provided a full list of recipients.
He also preferred to use travelers from the former Eastern Europe because unlike naïve U.S. citizens, they had experience living in a communist system and knew how to avoid raising suspicions.
One of his U.S. delivery people, Calzon said, took to Havana a list of Dos and Don’ts he had written — like avoiding hotel taxis because the drivers could inform State Security agents. The traveler hid the list in his hotel room, and it turned up in the official Granma newspaper.
His main precautions, he said, are that he always assumed that sooner or later everything he did would become public, either through a U.S. newspaper report or a Havana allegation. “And you pray a lot.”
Helping Cubans “is not a secret operation. It’s not an intelligence operation. This is strictly for human rights, and we never gather military information or encourage violence,” Calzon said. “But there is a word: ‘discretion.’ ”
Maybe it’s not a secret operation, but Cuba has outlawed cooperation with the USAID programs and sentenced USAID subcontractor Alan Gross to 15 years in prison for delivering USAID-financed sophisticated communications equipment to Cuban Jews.
The official charge sheets against most of 75 dissidents sentenced to lengthy prison terms in a 2003 crackdown known as Cuba’s Black Spring mentioned the U.S. government’s programs in Cuba.
Police regularly seize cash, computers, printers, books, digital memories and other equipment sent to dissidents from abroad and intercept emails and phone calls. After Soler filed a lawsuit for the return of the toys, her lawyer was suspended for six months for allegedly mishandling other cases.
Freedom House, an independent organization in Washington, returned a $1.7 million USAID grant for a Cuba program in 2011 because the agency was asking for too many details on how the money was spent, including the names and travel plans of participants.
And while USAID insists the Cuba programs are not secret, it offered applicants for one grant last year the chance to withdraw after it mistakenly used an unencrypted line to send their document to U.S. diplomats in Havana for their review.
A dozen other people in Washington and Miami who have handled or currently handle Cuba programs agreed to broadly describe their concerns and security measures on the promise of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. But they declined to provide details of their programs.
One former program supervisor said he sometimes used a widely available encryption program when chatting online with people on the island.
For phone calls, he added, he used Skype or phones not registered to his foundation.
The supervisor of an ongoing program said he keeps the names of his Cuba contacts away from even the board of directors of his organization, and has a special password solely for his list of email contacts.
But another person currently involved in a Cuba program said he finds it “a bit sophomoric” to take such precautions because “I have to assume that in this day and age any government that wants to find out something can do it.”
“I am not saying that you post your information on your door,” he said. “In the end, working for human rights in Cuba is a calculated risk. We, and the people in Cuba, do it with our eyes wide open.”