Will Obama Turn the Tide in Cuba?

By Tracey Eaton

Barack Obama speaks to Cuban President Raúl Castro from the Oval Office on Dec. 16, 2014. White House Photo by Pete Souza.
Barack Obama speaks to Cuban President Raúl Castro from the Oval Office on Dec. 16, 2014. White House Photo by Pete Souza.

HAVANA TIMES — “Obama to Lay out Vision for Cuba in Historic Havana Speech.” That was the headline of an Associated Press story published Wednesday. Here’s how former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray reacted on Facebook:

“Since when a President of a foreign government visits a country and explains to the people his vision for their country? Unless, of course, he considers himself the Emperor of the Universe with a right to sermon (sermonear) his listeners,” Alzugaray wrote. “There is another possibility, Obama is announcing his campaign to become President of Cuba en 2018.”

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser who has helped engineer the diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba, made clear in the story that Obama isn’t trying to impose his will.

“Ultimately he will make clear that that’s for the Cuban people to decide,” Rhodes said. “We have great confidence in the ability of the Cuban people to do extraordinary things.”

Yet even as Obama makes his historic journey to Cuba, others in the U.S. government remain intent on shaping the destiny of Cuba.

The U.S. Agency for International Development continues operating democracy programs in Cuba that the Cuban government regards as illegal. In January, USAID announced $6 million in grants to “provide humanitarian assistance to political prisoners and their families, and politically marginalized individuals and groups in Cuba.”

After I mentioned the $6 million on Facebook, one Facebook friend wrote:

“Let’s see where it goes (the USAID) …”

Alan Gross is in a Cuban prison nearly five years after his arrest.
Alan Gross near the end of his five years in a Cuban prison.

Alan Gross, an international development worker who spent five years in a Cuban prison in connection with his work in Cuba, shot back: “down the toilet.”

I replied:

“I think there are a lot of smart, well-intentioned people at USAID and at development companies that handle these contracts. I know that democracy activists and others in Cuba face big challenges and are perpetually short of resources. But I think it would be useful to see, at some point, a USAID analysis or report on program accomplishments over the past, say, five or 10 years.”

Gross said, “That will be a very short report. Throwing good money after bad is not a good strategy. What USAID should do is get buy-in from the Government of Cuba on at least some of its “ideas”

It is illegal to distribute ANYTHING in Cuba funded in full or in part by the US Government. (According to the Government of Cuba.) That being the case, USAID could be more functional were it to consult with the Cuban Gov., yes? What’s more important is that both governments begin to show at least some mutual respect.”

A year ago, I estimated that USAID, the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors had spent about $1 billion on Cuba-related programs (See “Cuba spending hovers around $1 billion”).

The spending continued even after the U.S. and Cuban governments renewed diplomatic relations in 2015.

On Jan. 6, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor said it planned to offer $5.6 million in grants “to strengthen the capacity of on-island, independent civil society to further the rights and interests of Cuban citizens.”

On Feb. 18, USAID paid a senior transition adviser named Francisco Utset $75,000 as part of a contract worth up to $649,984. Records show the adviser is alternately listed as F. Xavier Utset and F. Utset and Francisco Utset. The agency has paid him $350,000 since 2013.

A Cuba specialist named Xavier Utset was at Creative Associates International while the company was running a secret Cuba operation in Costa Rica.

OTI has active programs in Colombia and Honduras, among other countries.
OTI has active programs in Colombia and Honduras, among other countries.

USAID staff directory shows that Francisco Utset works for the Office of Transition Initiatives, which is part of USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance.

OTI specializes in engineering political transitions, among other things. After I noticed the payments to Utset in 2014, I wondered whether OTI had started another project in Cuba.

Cuban officials have complained about U.S. government programs targeting Cuba.

Human rights activists in Cuba say the U.S. government is not doing enough. A group called Foro Por los Derechos y Libertades complained in a letter to Obama that his policies favored trade over human rights:

“The new policies towards Cuba spearheaded by your administration pose the risk of legitimizing the deeply entrenched Cuban regime. Moreover, it would do so without receiving anything in return. The friendly gestures, formal recognition and official negotiations bestowed on the Castro by the United States government have actually yielded a significant increase in violence against the opposition, especially against women activists. It is no wonder then, why a record number of Cubans are currently fleeing the island.

“The Castro Regime will not generate its own change. It has remained in power for nearly six decades by carrying out horrific human rights violations. In Cuba, human rights violations are systemic; they are an institutional part of the Regime’s so-called judiciary system.

Berta Soler
Berta Soler

“We would never imagine that the democratic world would legitimize the Castro. These individuals have destroyed the well-being of our nation. From firing squads and political assassinations to political imprisonment, thousands of Cubans inside and outside the island have had their lives taken by the Regime because of their advocacy of a Free Cuba.

“The most relevant issues about the adverse effects of Castro’s dictatorship on the Cuban people will not be part of the agenda of your visit. The presidential delegation includes CEOs from top American corporations as well as members of Congress who are eager to trade with the regime, including the Secretary of Agriculture and Commerce, as well as the SBA Administrator. Why there are not human rights advocates among them? Sadly, it’s more than obvious that the main objective of this visit is to eagerly solidify business deals.

“If the quest for commerce continues to be placed above the support of the pro-democracy and civil rights movement in Cuba, the legacy left by your administration will be one where the suffering of the Cuban people was prolonged. Yet, your best contribution would be to act as a facilitator of a true democratic transition in Cuba.

Antonio Rodiles
Antonio Rodiles

“When members of the international community turn their backs on our demands and proposals, they actually facilitate the regime’s escalation in violence, as well as the further fracture of the Cuban society. To those who visit Cuba as if it were some type of exotic zoo of sorts without acknowledging the crude reality that the Cuban society is going through, we remind them what Edmund Burke once said: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.'”

The organization’s coordinators are Berta Soler, Antonio G. Rodiles and Jorge Luis García, also known as Antúnez.

Members of the group’s coordinating committee are:

Ángel Moya, Raúl Borges, Egberto Escobedo, María Cristina Labrada, Ailer González, Claudio Fuentes, Ángel Santiesteban, Hugo Damian Prieto Blanco, Jose Díaz Silva and Gorki Aguila Carrasco.

Activists brought masks of Obama to a Sunday march
Activists brought masks of Obama to a Sunday march

Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters that he hopes Obama’s visit to Cuba will “make the process of normalization permanent and irreversible.”

Earlier, in an article called, “President Obama is going to Cuba. Here’s why,” Rhodes wrote:

“We’ve already seen indications of how increased engagement can improve the lives of the Cuban people. Cuba’s nascent private sector —from restaurant owners to shopkeepers — has benefited from increased travel from the American people. Increased remittances to Cuba from the United States has helped Cuban families. Openings for American companies also hold the potential of improving the lives of ordinary Cubans — for instance, American companies will be enabling travelers to stay in Cuban homes and setting up a factory that will provide equipment for farmers. The Cuban government has taken some steps to fulfill its commitment to expand access to the Internet, expanding wireless hotspots and announcing an initial broadband connection. These are steps that should be built upon to increase connectivity to the wider world and access to information for the Cuban people.

Rhodes, left, talks to Ricardo Zuniga, National Security Council’s Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, during Obama’s phone call with Raúl Castro in December 2014. White House Photo by Pete Souza
Rhodes, left, talks to Ricardo Zuniga, National Security Council’s Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, during Obama’s phone call with Raúl Castro in December 2014. White House Photo by Pete Souza

“Still, this progress is insufficient. There is much more that can be done — by the United States, and by the Cuban government— to advance this opening in ways that will be good for Cubans, and good for the United States. That is why President Obama is traveling to Cuba. We want to open up more opportunities for U.S. businesses and travelers to engage with Cuba, and we want the Cuban government to open up more opportunities for its people to benefit from that engagement. Ultimately, we believe that Congress should lift an embargo that is not to advancing the Cuban people’s individual well-being and human rights, and remove onerous restrictions that aim to dictate to Americans where they can and cannot travel.

“Even as we pursue normalization, we’ve made clear that we will continue to have serious differences with the Cuban government— particularly on human rights. While Cuba released Alan Gross, a number of political prisoners and recently hosted the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, we continue to oppose and speak out against restrictions on rights like freedom of speech and assembly—and space for independent civil society — that the United States supports around the world. While we do not seek to impose change on Cuba, we strongly believe that Cuba will benefit when the Cuban people can exercise their universal rights. President Obama has raised these issues in his discussions with President Castro, and will continue to do so.”

2 thoughts on “Will Obama Turn the Tide in Cuba?

  • The US never kills anyone with kindness. It just kills.

  • As frustrating as Obama’s Cuba policy seems, it may ultimately be the only way to effect change in Cuba. The Castros have not responded to direct pressure. The only thing left to do is “kill ’em with kindness”. I could vomit just thinking about it.

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