It was a novel plan: Disguise satellite dishes as boogie boards. Smuggle them into Cuba and set up a mobile Internet connection free from socialist government control.
"The internet works VERY RAPIDLY!" a technician told his Cuban contact while explaining the set up. "...You may use Skype, Yahoo video + voice... Next week we will be talking FOR FREE!"
But Cuban authorities say they were onto the plan from the beginning, and the improvised communication system wound up in the hands of Cuban agents, thwarting the U.S.-financed effort.
Three years later, U.S. democracy programs in Cuba have been redesigned and improved, their supporters say. And they are operating on the island, despite a 20-month delay in new funding and political fights over their effectiveness.
The U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department have set aside more than $94 million for the democracy programs since 2007, budget figures show. The programs form a key part of President Obamas bid to promote democratic change in Cuba, something 11 successive American presidents have failed to do.
"I think the programs are important," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, a leader of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which supports hard-line policies against the Cuban government. "No program is perfect. But I think we have seen continuous improvement."
A USAID official declined to discuss the Cuba programs on the record.
A Capitol Hill source who is knowledgeable about the programs said he is sympathetic to the challenges that USAID faces in Cuba.
"If youre sitting at AID at a desk and someone hands you $20 million and says, All right, go spend it on Cuba and none of it can touch the government—$20 million in a year is a lot of money to spend that way."
Figuring out how to spend the money became even tougher after Cuban authorities arrested American development worker Alan Gross in December 2009.
Gross was distributing portable communication systems that connect to the Internet via satellite. Cuban authorities slapped him with a 15-year jail sentence in March.
After his arrest, Washington stopped funding programs aimed at smuggling high-tech communications gear into Cuba.
But that created a new problem.
"Now youve got to figure out—where do we spend all that money that we used to spend on technology? In some ways this is a shoveling-the-money-out-the-door operation," the Capitol Hill source said.
Even when AID spent only $9 million per year on the programs, it was "very difficult" to find useful ways to use the money, the source said.
Spending for the programs jumped after Fidel Castro fell ill in 2006. Funding hit a high of $45 million in 2008. The source said:
"According to everyone at the State Department, that was the year that the programs just...broke down completely. Its very difficult to spent that much money, so how do you spend it? You basically give it to people in the United States and say, OK, try to go do some good with it."
That was also the year of the boogie board episode, which Cuban authorities featured on government television as part of a media campaign this spring showing how four Cuban agents had infiltrated several U.S.-financed democracy initiatives.
Some lawmakers have complained that the programs aren't effective and have lacked transparency. A leading critic is Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
On April 1, Kerry called for a review of the AID programs, which delayed the release of $20 million in funds.
The State Department replied to Kerry in a 10-page memo that defended USAID programs in Cuba. It said U.S. officials and their partners had trained hundreds of journalists, human rights activists, students and others as part of an effort to help Cubans "freely determine their own future."
Democracy programs "have been instrumental in raising the international profile of civil society activists, especially bloggers and journalists," helping to protect them from arrest, the memo said.
Officials are channeling as much aid as possible into Cuba rather than spending outside the island.
"This focus on the island supports our efforts to reach broader segments of the Cuban population, while deepening the direct impact of the programs."
Democracy aid has traditionally gone to dissidents, journalists and political prisoners and their families. New recipients will include members of the LGBT community, the disabled and victims of sexual exploitation, the memo said.
"Democracy assistance in authoritarian or totalitarian states such as Cuba is often designed to lay the groundwork for future democratic institutions…the impact of that assistance can be difficult to measure, particularly at an early stage. Nevertheless, these programs have already made notable achievements."
Officials say they can't reveal details about some of their successes because that could endanger aid recipients.
Some congressional sources complain about a lack of accountability, although they say they've seen some improvements.
In past years, they say, AID handed the money to private contractors without demanding an accounting of the spending, so even the agency did not know precisely how all the money was being spent.
According to the Capitol Hill source, "The way it used to work, up until Obama basically, is everyone pledged to look the other way about how the money was spent, and Im talking about USAID itself. There was no oversight in Congress. There was nothing. And our Interests Section in Havana had no idea how the money was being spent. So the only ones that knew how the money was being spent were the people spending it.
"The general model was - I give $1 million to some group in Miami and thats transparent. Thats to say, We know that USAID gave $1 million to that group in Miami. Thats as much as we know, and then the trail just dies.'
"There were no controls."
That changed after Gross was arrested, he said.
Lawmakers have "insisted that at least USAID run the programs in such a way that they know who the moneys going to."
"Its a lot better. They wont tell us to whom the money goes. But they have assured us that they know . . ."
The Libertad Act of 1996 authorized the democracy programs. In response, Cuban authorities enacted Law 88, which calls for jail sentences of up to 20 years for Cubans who carry out U.S.-financed initiatives.
Supporters of the democracy programs say Cuban laws violate universal human rights, which gives the U.S. government the moral authority to operate in Cuba.
John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development in New York, calls that "self-righteous."
"Theyre essentially saying the Cuban laws dont matter, that U.S. values...that the U.S. right to judge and intervene in other societies...is superior to a countrys domestic legal system if we happen to disagree with it. And I think thats a disastrous statement. I think theyve essentially made it very difficult for Alan Gross to be released," said McAuliff, who opposes hard-line policies against Cuba.
Stephen Wilkinson, a Cuba expert at London Metropolitan University, believes the main U.S. goal is to "subvert the state in Cuba."
"You may think thats a laudable aim. In actual fact, its illegal under international law and the United States should not be doing it," he said.
"The Cubans arent putting up with it. Theyre going to put more people like Alan Gross in jail. You wont get the guy out. Youll just get more going in because the Cubans will not tolerate that kind of interference in their internal affairs, and thats a historic fact."
Claver-Carone, a lawyer and lobbyist, said the Cuban government "hates these programs passionately" because the U.S. support "goes to people who dont agree with their views."
He is optimistic the $20 million will be distributed.
"Congress approved those funds. Congress voted. Even if Sen. Kerry completely disagrees, hes cognizant that this was voted on. This is Sen. Kerry holding up President Obamas request. Itll go through.
"We want to help the Cuban people. Were not trying to impose anything on them."
Florida journalist Tracey Eaton is researching democracy programs in Cuba with support from the non-profit Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. His blog is the Cuba Money Project and his email, firstname.lastname@example.org.