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U.S. Aid to Cuban Dissidents May Do More Harm Than Good

Cuba's accusations about dissidents in the pay of Washington have revived a long-standing debate over whether using U.S. government funds to support the Cuban opposition does more harm than good.

Some $20 million has been paid by the U.S. Agency for International Development to U.S.-based groups working to end communist rule in the island. They run Web sites, distribute pro-democracy books and pamphlets, and even provide food and medicine to the families of political prisoners.

But some veteran activists say the money only gives Fidel Castro's government ammunition to persecute dissidents, such as the 75 sentenced in recent days for allegedly conspiring with the United States.

Among prosecutors' evidence was a list found by Cuban agents in the home of independent journalist Oscar Espinosa Chepe. It allegedly detailed $7,000 in payments over a year, apparently for Espinosa Chepe's articles criticizing the Cuban economy.

It was unclear who the payments were from, but Espinosa Chepe sent articles to various publications and Web sites, including the Miami-based CubaNet, which received USAID funding. He was sentenced this week to 20 years in prison.

"These people receive money and live off it while in the service of a power that harms their people," Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said this week.

Dissidents and officials at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, the main diplomatic office, vigorously deny that the American government has dissidents on its payroll.

"That's a very old argument," said Elizardo Sanchez, of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. "I personally have never received a cent from Washington."

Still, USAID has actively funded U.S.-based groups. As of last year, it had given a total of $1.4 million to groups that publish the works of Cuban independent reporters on Miami-based Web pages, including more than $800,000 to CubaNet.

It is unclear how much of that money, or the materials they have purchased or produced, have actually made their way to individuals or groups on the island.

"This funding gives exactly the wrong impression," said Cuba specialist Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy. "First, not much of it gets to people in need. Secondly, it just gives ammunition to the Cuban government to say these people are paid agents of the United States — which of course they are not."

Among the biggest recipients of USAID's Cuba program money since 1997 has been Freedom House. With $1.3 million in USAID grants, the New York-based human rights group has distributed about 40,000 books, pamphlets and other materials on human rights, democracy and free market economics.

In 1997, Cuban officials expelled an American, David Dorn, who traveled to the island to visit dissidents on behalf of Freedom House.

At the time, the Communist Party newspaper Granma said he was detained for "supplying material and financing to counterrevolutionary chieftains" on the island. Granma claimed that Dorn was "recruited" by Frank Calzon, then director of the group's Cuban programs.

Three years later, Cuban authorities arrested two Czechs — one a member of the Czech parliament — and alleged they had planned to deliver computer equipment to dissidents with the help of Freedom House. The Czechs were held for 25 days and released only after they admitted breaking the law by meeting with dissidents.

Calzon now is director for the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba, which has received $2.2 million from USAID. The center gathers and disseminates information about human rights in Cuba and pays the travel costs of representatives who visit the island to distribute pro-democracy literature.

USAID has also given $1 million to the Institute for Democracy in Cuba, a coalition of Miami-based groups; $250,000 to the Cuban Dissidence Task Group of Miami; and $1.6 million to the Washington-based International Republican Institute.

Money also went to the University of Miami and other institutions to help plan for a transition in Cuba.

The largest and most politically powerful Cuban exile group, the Cuban American National Foundation, says it receives no U.S. government funds.

USAID's Cuba effort is reminiscent of former President Ronald Reagan's program supporting dissidents in Poland, where the opposition rallied around the Solidarity labor union. That effort helped bring down decades of communist rule in 1989.

"It worked in Poland because the adversary of Poland nationalism was the Soviet Union," Smith said. "But in Cuba the adversary of Cuban nationalism is the United States."