By Juan O. Tamayo, McClatchy Newspapers –
MIAMI — The U.S. State Department is increasing funding for the technology side of its Cuba democracy programs in hopes of expanding the flow of uncensored information, despite the Castro government’s long-standing objections.
“In spirit and in money, there’s an uptick” in spending for technology to increase information flows, said Mark Lopes, deputy assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
But Lopes added that it is difficult to quantify the year-to-year increase in technology funding because of the multi-year nature of the programs, which have a total of $20 million to spend in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has spearheaded a campaign to support global Internet freedom in order to overcome efforts by dictatorships to control information and accelerate “political, social and economic change.”
“From sports scores to international headlines, the Cuban people should be able to pursue their thirst for uncensored information like any other citizen in the Americas. This is fundamental, and we are committed to help however we can,” Lopes said.
Cuba has outlawed the democracy programs as “subversive,” and U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross is serving a 15-year prison term for delivering three unregistered satellite phones to the island’s Jewish community.
El Nuevo Herald obtained a copy of a letter from the U.S. State Department to Congress, dated April 26, that details how the department intends to spend the $20 million in Cuba democracy program funds. The biggest single block of money is the $4 million that USAID’s Bureau of Latin America and the Caribbean will spend on a “digital democracy” program to encourage the use of “innovative technology to increase the flow of uncensored information to, from and within the island,” noted the letter.
It gave no further details on the “digital democracy” program, and Lopes declined to provide them. Such details are usually not made public to protect the programs from Cuban bids to torpedo them.
To avoid another Alan Gross-type incident, the program will avoid sophisticated equipment like satellite phones and use only items available on the island such as computers, DVDs, thumb drives and cellphones, said a knowledgeable congressional staffer.
The letter also listed the following pro-democracy programs:
— A $1.53 million allocation to the State Department’s Western Hemisphere Affairs section for a program to increase Cubans’ access to uncensored information through “long-distance training on basic information technology skills.”
Funds also “will support the purchase of basic information technology supplies and provide material support for human rights activities, independent journalists and independent libraries on the island.”
— A $1.05 million allocation to State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor to provide training, equipment and software to activists who gather information on human rights abuses, and $750,000 for “technology-based training” on the use of social media to tackle issues such as human rights, impunity and corruption.
The bureau also will administer $700,000 for each of two programs — one for youths that include “innovative uses of technology such as social media,” and another to educate Cubans on market economies and their impact on democracy.
— USAID’s Bureau of Latin America and the Caribbean will administer $500,000 to support “research on technology options for expanding communications” among Cubans and Internet connectivity as part of a program titled “The Application of Technology in Democracy Promotion.”
A key issue not detailed by Lopes or addressed in the letter is how the U.S. programs can increase technology use in Cuba, which has the lowest Internet access rate in Latin America and a tough national security system that tries to control all communications.
Also listed in the letter are $2.9 million for food, over-the-counter medicines and other humanitarian support for political prisoners, relatives and other “politically marginalized persons,” and $4 million to the National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington nonprofit that promotes democracy around the world.
The State Department noted it would spend $2.87 million of the $20 million to manage the Cuba programs, which tend to generate a high volume of paperwork compared to other U.S. foreign aid programs.