At a time of shrunken international aid budgets, many a humanitarian and entrepreneur would be glad to hear that the U.S. Embassy in some emerging economy is offering as much as $100,000 for projects relating to small business development, environmental protection, and the advancement of global health. But in Cuban engagement circles, news of a grant offer for just that came with some mixed reactions this summer.
That’s because, while many countries have experienced some form of pressure from the U.S. government, Cuba is among those who have felt it the most.
In July, the U.S. Embassy in Havana announced that U.S. and Cuban individuals and nongovernmental organizations have until Aug. 15 to email project proposals to foster Cuba’s burgeoning private sector. The proposals should focus on training for “efficiency, creativity, customer service, and innovation,” according to the announcement published on the embassy website.
In addition, it is considering projects that support agricultural initiatives aimed at promoting plant and animal health, with special attention to scientific and environmental concerns, such as the spread of pathogens. Also eligible are proposals exploring sustainable fisheries, marine pollution, endangered marine life, coral resilience, wildlife conservation, and terrestrial protected areas. Programs that improve cooperation on the research and prevention of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and the Zika virus will also be considered.
The grants can’t be used as seed money, but they can pay for workshops, academic exchanges, and capacity building collaborations that promote “exchange of information, best practices, scientific collaboration, research, and monitoring,” confirmed a U.S. Embassy spokesperson in Havana.
“Some aspects of the program might be particularly well received,” said Mayte Pinon, a South Florida-based Cuban agronomist. “For example, everyone wants to know how we insert this kind of knowledge into the globalized market.”
The timing of the grant announcement appears to be an extension of President Donald Trump’s June 16 announcement of policies intended to limit the flow of money to entities controlled by the Cuban military and to support the island’s private sector instead.
It is and it isn’t. The embassy says the first call for proposals came last year under former President Barack Obama. The spokesperson was able to confirm that the funds were disbursed last year but did not have immediate information on who received them and for what projects.
But the embassy spokesperson said the program aligns with the “priorities outlined in President Trump’s National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States toward Cuba.”
The Cuban government did not return requests for comment on the grant.
“Federal funding of on-the-ground programs in Cuba is highly sensitive,” noted Ric Herrero, former executive director of the pro-engagement campaign #CubaNow, which ran from early 2014 through November 2016. As such, he believes Cubans and Americans who request funding will likely be under some form of Cuban government scrutiny.
For decades, U.S. State Department funding was contentious because programs like its Human Rights and Democracy Fund covered the salaries and covert activities of hardline Cuban exiles. It also paid to distribute messages aimed at undermining the leadership of the Castros through the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Miami-based Radio Martí.
In recent years, the State Department’s United States Agency for International Development (USAID) made headlines for several controversial programs with similar aims. Between 2010 and 2012, USAID ran a covert micro-blogging platform known as Zunzuneo. On the outside, it operated much like Twitter, but its aim was to foment a “Cuban Spring,” much like the social media-inspired Arab Spring that led to civilian protests and uprisings throughout the Middle East during the same time period.
In 2014, the Associated Press uncovered a covert USAID program to infiltrate Cuba-based HIV outreach and prevention programs with Latin American youth who were to be tasked with identifying “social change actors.” Run by the Washington-based international aid program Creative Associates International (CAI), the program appears to have begun in 2009. This USAID-funded organization continued to run it for several years, even after the December 2009 arrest of U.S. government contractor Alan Gross, held in Cuba until 2015 for smuggling radios to the island’s Jewish community. The arrest prompted U.S. officials to privately encourage CAI to suspend the program.
The Trump administration has since proposed slashing USAID and State Department’s budget all over the world, Cuba included, as a way to save money.
“Among the most inefficient USAID programs were the ones for Cuba,” said Lopez Levy. “The Cuba program was out of any accountability standards. It was a loose cannon and still is.”
All of these programs happened during the same Obama administration that made the largest strides in normalizing relations with the Cuban government. But Cuban entrepreneurship was also something Obama promoted during his tenure.
“A central tenant of Obama policy was always to help the Cuban people increase the flow of contacts, resources, and opportunities for the burgeoning private sector in Cuba,” Herrero said. “What the Obama policy did not do was lift the embargo. Only Congress can do that since it’s codified into law under the Helms-Burton Act.”
Frank Calzón, executive director of Center for a Free Cuba, says that it remains to be seen if this grant program violates the Helms-Burton Act, since the law does not authorize U.S. funds for small businesses in Cuba.
“I do not have any problem with any American government initiative that is carried out according to the law. The problem is that during the last administration, a lot of stuff was done in a way to get around the law,” said Calzón, adding that time will tell if this grant is one of them. While Calzón said he works pro-bono, and has not received USAID funding for eight years, he did say he receives “a small amount” of operational support from the federally funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The last NED annual report is from 2015, and shows the Center for a Free Cuba had received $107,000.)
Within the pro-engagement camp, the general consensus is that U.S. citizens and Cubans interested in accepting the funds should proceed with caution. They say the Cuban government won’t likely intervene unless it appears a program is focused on regime change.
Cuban émigré Arturo Lopez Levy, a lecturer at University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, says this grant seems to be more upfront, and therefore may be seen more favorably by Cuban authorities.
“I think the Cuban government will decide on a case-by-case basis because most of these programs are already infiltrated or run with great incompetence,” said Lopez Levy, who worked as a political analyst for the Cuban government from 1992 to 1994. “They won’t arrest you for just one thing. They’ll wait to have a good case against you.”
But hardliners such as Jaime Suchlicki, the outgoing director of The Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, still believe that the covert style was better. “Not only that, some of the people that could apply would be government officials,” he added.
At least on that latter point, the far more progressive Lopez Levy agrees with Suchlicki. “This is asymmetric political warfare. The Cuban government has always said guerrillas get their weapons from their enemies’ arsenal,” Lopez Levy said.
“I think if we have cool heads working at the U.S. Embassy and at State, it behooves everybody to work with them and to get informed as to the real purpose of the program,” said Herrero, noting that diplomacy grants like the ones currently offered in Cuba are bipartisan, and have been offered in many countries. Cuba, he notes, is simply more contentious.
“Ultimately if you want to help the private sector in Cuba, the best thing to do to is further open our private sector to them and get our government bureaucrats out of the way,” Herrero said.