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Story Publication logo June 15, 2011

Impact of Cuba Money Project


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The U.S. government spends millions of dollars every year to boost Cuba's beleaguered pro-democracy...


For every $1 million that the U.S. government spends, just $5.60 goes to promote democracy in Cuba. But that tiny slice of the federal budget stirs up big controversy.

Defenders of U.S. democracy programs in Cuba say they help boost freedom in the western hemisphere's most repressed nation. Critics say they are clandestine operations that have little oversight.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, refuses to describe in detail how the money is spent. USAID distributes multimillion-dollar contracts to international development firms and non-profit groups. At least some of the money then goes to subcontractors. USAID doesn't usually disclose their names. But sometimes—when things go terribly wrong—names surface.

Something did go wrong in the case of a subcontractor named Alan Gross. He was carrying out a USAID mission in December 2009 when Cuban authorities threw him in jail.

In March, Gross received a 15-year jail sentence for distributing high-tech communication systems in Cuba. Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, wrote:

"Does anyone doubt that all the equipment that Alan Gross delivered was confiscated, and that his entire operation provided zero value for the U.S. tax dollars invested in it?"

With support from the Pulitzer Center, I went to Cuba in July 2010 to learn more about the Gross case and the democracy programs.

I interviewed Cuban bloggers, dissidents and human rights activists. Their impression was that only a small fraction of the money—no more than 10 percent by conservative estimates—reaches democracy activists on the island.

Several dissidents scoffed when I told them that the U.S. government was spending $20 million per year on democracy programs.

Where's the money? they asked.

One Cuban dissident told me he didn't accept any U.S. funds. He said he received money from a private Miami group. Later I found out that the same Miami organization receives USAID funding. It seems clear that some democracy activists receive U.S. money without realizing it, and it's money that can land them in jail in Cuba.

After returning to the U.S., I still had a lot of questions about USAID programs. I decided to start the Cuba Money Project, an independent journalism initiative. My goal is to gather information, analysis and opinion about the democracy programs.

On May 1, I began uploading videos of interviews with Cuban bloggers, dissidents, experts and others. See the Cuba Money Project's Vimeo channel. These videos, along with articles I've written about the democracy programs, have contributed to a lively debate, which has heated up in recent weeks.

Dozens of blogs have embedded Cuba Money Project videos, which have generated more than 7,800 views since May 1. Diverse websites in the U.S., Cuba, Spain and other countries have linked to Cuba Money Project articles. Some websites have transcribed excerpts of interviews. The Miami Herald, GlobalVoices and other media outlets have cited the Cuba Money Project in articles. See a sampling of Cuba Money references and links here.

In the coming months, I plan to continue adding interviews, videos and other information to the website. I still don't have the range and diversity of opinions that I'd like to capture. Nor do I have all the data I want about spending on democracy programs. I have begun to file Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests to try to kick loose additional information. See the letters here.

Meantime, I welcome feedback, ideas and suggestions at [email protected].


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