Saturday, November 26, 2016

Not a rumor this time: Fidel Castro is dead

Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro is no more. Below is a piece I wrote for al Jazeera:

Havana, Cuba - Fidel Castro, a titan of the Cold War who defied 11 American presidents and thrust Cuba onto the world stage, is dead at age 90.

Cuban state-run television said the former long-time president died at 10:29pm local time on Friday. Castro's brother and current president, Raul Castro, confirmed the news.

Al Jazeera's Latin America Editor Lucia Newman, reporting from Santiago, Chile, said Castro's death hardly came as a surprise.

"He has been a larger-than-life figure who inspired a revolutionary movement all over the world, especially in Latin America," she said.

"As time went by, we had been hearing less and less from Fidel Castro. We all knew he had been ill for a decade and was not seen since August after his birthday, which was celebrated across the country.

"His death is going to have an enormous emotional impact on Cubans. It does really feel like the beginning of the end of the Castro era."

Monday, October 17, 2016

Hillary Clinton: Embargo "needs to go"

Below is a draft of a Hillary Clinton speech about Cuba, according to a stolen email posted by Wikileaks.
The email came with this introduction by Dan Schwerin, Clinton's director of speechwriting:
Team, attached please find a draft of HRC's Cuba speech for Friday in Miami. We make the case for lifting the embargo and pursuing a strategy of engagement, and then stepping back to offer a vision for U.S. leadership in the Americas and a broader contrast on foreign policy with the Republicans. In this draft we don't hit Rubio or Jeb by name, so that's one question to consider. HRC is excited about this one and thinks we're in a pretty good place, so that's encouraging. Would be great to hear any comments or concerns on Thursday morning. Also, most of you have met our new speechwriter Megan Rooney, who wrote for HRC for four years before going to work for President Obama. I am super excited to have her on board and I'm sure you'll soon love her as much as I do. Later this evening she'll be sending around an Urban League draft. Thanks as always Dan
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
REMARKS ON CUBA
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY
MIAMI, FLORIDA
FRIDAY, JULY 31, 2015

Thank you. I’m delighted to be here at Florida International University. You can feel the energy here. A place where people of all backgrounds and walks of life work hard, do their part, and get ahead. That’s the promise of America that has drawn generations of immigrants to our shores, and it’s a reality right here at FIU.

Today, I want to talk with you about a subject that has stirred passionate debate in this city and beyond for decades, but is now entering a crucial new phase. America’s approach to Cuba is at a crossroads, and the upcoming presidential election will determine whether we chart a new path forward or turn back to the old ways of the past. We must decide between engagement and embargo. Between embracing fresh thinking and returning to Cold War deadlock. And the choices we make will have lasting consequences not just for 11 million Cubans, but also for American leadership across our Hemisphere and around the world.

I know that for many in this room and throughout the Cuban-American community, this debate is no intellectual exercise -- it’s deeply personal. For those who were sent as children to live with strangers during the Peter Pan airlift… for families who arrived here during the Mariel boatlift with only the clothes on their backs… for son and daughters who could not bury their parents back home… for all who have suffered and waited and longed for change to come to the land, “where the palm grows,” as Jose Marti put it. And, yes, for a rising generation less burdened by the legacy of history and eager to shape a new and better future.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Democracy spending down, but controversy remains

Made in USA
Cuban officials earlier this week complained about a U.S. government-funded leadership program for Cuban youth.
"We have insisted once again on the need to end programs aimed at provoking internal changes on the island, which would be an essential step toward normalizing bilateral relations," Josefina Vidal, Cuba's director of U.S. affairs, said Friday during a Q&A session on Twitter.
I wrote about the leadership program when it was announced in 2014 (see "New program targets Cuban youth"). World Learning said in a statement sent to Martí Notícias that the program ended in August. But that didn't stop Cuban students from rallying against it earlier this week. A headline in Granma declared: "Cuban university students condemn subversive U.S. schemes."
Funding for U.S. democracy programs targeting Cuba peaked at $44.4 million in 2008 under George W. Bush, according to the Government Accountability Office. The programs continue today despite the two countries' efforts to normalize relations.
The State Department plans to spend $15 million on such programs during the 2017 fiscal year, which starts today. That is down $5 million from fiscal 2016.
The State Department says:
The FY 2017 request will support fundamental freedoms and respect for human rights. Programs will support humanitarian assistance to victims of political repression and their families, strengthen independent Cuban civil society, and freedom of expression.

Nearly $5 million to unnamed contractors

See interactive graphic
The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Radio & TV Martí, reported spending $9,327,638 for artists, writers, journalists and performers in fiscal 2016, which ended on Sept. 30.
More than half, or 52 percent, went to unnamed foreign contractors. That's a greater share than in 2015. Since the fiscal year just ended yesterday, it's likely that not all the contracts have been reported.


Vendor NameAction Obligation ($)
MISCELLANEOUS FOREIGN AWARDEES$4,889,712.39
APPLIED MEMETICS LLC$534,734.00
BERT KLEINMAN PROGRAMMING INC$139,500.00
INFORMA UK LTD$134,000.00
WASHINGTON VIDEO NEWSWIRE, LLC$117,402.08
DETTMER, JAMIE$102,323.87
REZAEI, KAVEH$83,200.00
MELTO, JODY$83,200.00
GROWCOCK, BRYAN$81,120.00
ALPERT, BRUCE$80,080.00
VAN DAM FALK, CAROL$78,000.00
MUNEZERO, ROSINE$75,000.00
ORLANDO GONZALEZ ESTEVA$72,920.00
VIDEO CONTENT, LLC$72,800.00
STEPHENSON-REYNOLDS, DUSTIN$72,800.00
DIERKING, PHILIP$72,800.00
BALLSAL TV PRODUCTION CORP.$70,876.00
RUDEL JR, RICHARD WILLIAM$67,051.20

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

NED's Cuba projects

The U.S. government-financed National Endowment for Democracy, or NED, supports the following projects in Cuba:

Advocating for a Human Rights Framework for Cuba
International Platform for Human Rights in Cuba
$85,000
To advocate for human rights in the European Union negotiations with the Cuban government. IPHRC will work with Cuban activists to enhance their understanding of the EU – Cuba bilateral negotiation process and improve their capacity to advocate before the EU for the inclusion of human rights into the agenda.

Advocating for Freedom of Religion in Cuba
Evangelical Christian Humanitarian Outreach for Cuba
$70,000
To foster greater freedom of religion in Cuba. EchoCuba will work with trusted partners in Cuba to hold events and produce materials that encourage discussion of freedom of religion, democratic values and freedoms.

Changing Cuba’s Media Landscape
Clovek v tisni, o.p.s. – People in Need
$209,888
To promote greater freedom of information and freedom of expression. The organization will provide independent media professionals with training and technical assistance to produce uncensored content on social, political, economic and cultural developments in Cuba. The group will also build the technical capacity of independent organizations throughout Cuba to carry out initiatives aimed at increasing the free flow of information.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Cuban thankful for freedom "to think, to say, to dream"

Luis Fuentes
FRANKFORT, Kentucky - Luis Fuentes says he arrived from Cuba "with a suitcase full of dreams and nothing else."
He literally had nothing else because his luggage was lost in transit. But he held on to his dreams, became a successful environmental engineer in Kentucky and started a magazine aimed at the state's growing Cuban population.
He called the magazine El Kentubano. He had coined the term a few years earlier. He didn't want his children to forget their Cuban roots, so he called his daughter, Fernanda, now 12, a "kentubana," and his son, Luis Manuel, 10, a "kentubano."
Fuentes, 45, is proud of his heritage and didn't want to lose it once he reached the United States. At the same time, he wanted to learn about and adapt to life in the United States. But there was little information for new arrivals, he says.
So in 2009, he launched El Kentubano, which is full of tips on understanding schools, health care, banking, visas, the citizenship process and more.
"There was no other source of communication, unlike Miami which had radio and television...newspapers. Here was nothing...no communication for the community," he says.
"It was very important because most of the community are people who come directly from Cuba, and they come with zero knowledge about anything. It is a very abrupt change, not only because of the language, not just because of the cold, but because they come with different rules, with a different discipline, with other customs, with habits of labor discipline, social discipline. Everything is new, and information was extremely important for those Cubans who were arriving."
The circulation of his magazine has climbed from 1,000 to 10,000 as the Cuban population in Kentucky has grown.

Friday, July 29, 2016

U.S. wants to settle Cuba claims "as quickly as possible"

U.S. and Cuban officials have made some progress in resolving billions of dollars in property claims and court judgments that the two nations level at each other, a senior State Department official said.
The two sides had "substantive" discussions on Thursday in Washington, D.C., and agreed to meet again in Havana to resume conversions over ways to reach a mutually acceptable agreement, the official said in a background discussion with reporters.
Cuba claims that the U.S. embargo has caused $181 billion in "human damages" and $121 billion in economic harm.
The U.S. government contends that Cuba must settle $1.9 billion in property claims - plus 6 percent interest - in property claims dating from the late 1950s and 1960s; $2.2 billion in court judgments; and hundreds of billions of dollars in mining claims.
The senior official said it was premature to try to predict how long it would take the two countries to settle their claims, but said Cuban officials seemed to be taking negotiations seriously.
U.S. officials have stated their "desire to resolve claims as quickly as possible," the senior official said.
No date has been set for the next round of discussions.
"Both sides agreed we'd have more regular meetings," the official said. "We would expect to go to Havana for the next meeting."

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

U.S. official: Engagement is empowering Cubans

One year after Washington and Havana restored diplomatic ties, U.S. policy is helping to empower the Cuban people and give them greater autonomy from the socialist government, a senior State Department official said Wednesday.
"We remain convinced that our shift from a policy of isolation to engagement is the best course for supporting the aspirations of the Cuban people and the emergence of a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Cuba," said the official during a background briefing with reporters.
The official said 700,000 Americans have traveled to Cuba this year, which increased people-to-people contact and boosted private businesses on the island.
As the Obama administration sees it, money from such travelers along with remittances from Cuban-Americans makes it easier for ordinary Cubans to move beyond the daily struggle to feed their families and think about the future. They are "better equipped to express their demands on the Cuban state and what they would like to do to be able to lead better lives," the senior official said.
The official declined to speculate on how U.S. policy might change once President Obama leaves office, but said many of the administration's measures to loosen restrictions on dealing with Cuba have become institutionalized.
"I would never speculate on what a next administration may do," the official said, "but I think to the extent that this has yielded these positive results for the United States, for the Cuban people, it would be difficult to go backwards."

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Lawyer: Fugitive loyal to Cuban revolution

Screenshot from Huck magazine
The lawyer for Charlie Hill, an American fugitive living in Cuba, released a statement Wednesday objecting to a March magazine article about Hill.
Jason Flores-Williams said in the statement:
In late March of 2016, Huck Magazine published a lengthy article that contained numerous inaccuracies regarding Mr. Hill, an African-American human rights activist who was forced to flee the United States in 1971 due to political repression.

Mr. Hill has since resided in Havana as a guest of the Cuban government. The Huck Magazine article so egregiously mischaracterizes and misstates Mr. Hill’s positions that we are necessarily compelled to immediately enter into litigation against Huck Magazine for fraud, libel and false light. Neither Mr. Hill nor his undersigned attorney were duly notified by Huck Magazine of their intent to publish this article.

Mr. Hill is immensely respectful and appreciative of the Cuban government and has been honored to be a small part of its democratic revolution. He has dedicated his life to the ideals of the Cuban Revolution and the dignity of the poor and disenfranchised throughout the world.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

American embassy in Havana offers grants

The American and Cuban flags few side by side in August 2015
The U.S. Embassy in Havana is passing out grants ranging from $1,000 to $100,000 to individuals and organizations based in Cuba and non-profit organizations in the U.S.
Two project announcements, reproduced below, say that "projects that are inherently political in nature" aren't likely to be funded.
I doubt this means that the State Department and the Agency for International Development have ended other more expansive programs that are political. But the goal of these embassy projects is to strengthen U.S.-Cuba bilateral relations.
Applications for the embassy projects "will be considered on a rolling basis up until August 15, 2016," the announcement said.
All projects must start before Sept. 30. See below for details:

Large Grants Program Funding Opportunity

U.S. Department of State
U.S. Embassy Cuba Public Affairs Section

Announcement Type: Grant/Fixed Amount Award

Funding Opportunity Title: U.S. Mission to Cuba Public Affairs Large Grants Program Statement

Monday, March 28, 2016

Castro to Obama: Butt out of Cuban politics

Fidel Castro. Photo: CubaDebate
When Barack Obama visited Cuba, he declared, "It is time, now, for us to leave the past behind."
Not so fast, Fidel Castro said in a column published today in Granma.
The former president's advice to Obama: Mind your own business.
Castro wrote:
My modest suggestion is to reflect and do not try now to develop theories about Cuban politics.
The past can't be forgotten, Castro wrote, "after a merciless blockade that has lasted almost 60 years."
He asked:
And those who have died in the mercenary attacks on ships and Cuban ports, an airliner full of passengers detonated in midair, mercenary invasions, multiple acts of violence and strength?
Castro said the Cuban people aren't about to give up "the rights and spiritual wealth earned with the development of education, science and culture."
He also said Cubans are fully capable of producing the "food and material wealth we need with the effort and intelligence of our people."
We do not need the empire to give us anything.

Friday, March 25, 2016

New State Department program targets Cuban youth

Barack Obama. By Ben Heine
Just three days after Barack Obama left Cuba, the State Department today announced a $753,989 community internship program targeting "young emerging leaders from Cuban civil society."
Non-profit organizations and educational institutions are invited to submit proposals. The deadline is May 20. The first awards are expected to be given in late July or early August.
The State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs plans to manage the program, aimed at financing two- to four-month professional development programs "which will fuel the participants’ development of action plans for nongovernmental community activities in Cuba."
The announcement states:
"Cuban civil society is not formed into well-established organizations that would typically be found in a society with a strong democratic tradition. Through participation in the program, participants will develop a set of leadership tools and skills to manage and grow civil society organizations that will actively support democratic principles in Cuba."
The announcement is below:

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The United States Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) announces a Notification of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) to support the Community Internship Program for Cuban Youth. Subject to the availability of funds, WHA intends to issue an award in an amount not to exceed $753,989 in FY2015 Economic Support Funds for a project period of three years. The anticipated start date for this activity is August 2016 and WHA intends to support one award as a result of this NOFO.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Barack Obama and the fate of Cuba

"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. 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. We have great confidence in the ability of the Cuban people to do extraordinary things.
Barack Obama speaks to Cuban President Raúl Castro from the Oval Office on Dec. 16, 2014. White House Photo by Pete Souza.
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."

Friday, March 11, 2016

Ladies in White hopes for meeting with president

Laura Labrada Pollán
Laura Labrada Pollán's faction of Las Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, has requested a meeting with President Barack Obama during his visit to Cuba on March 20 to March 22.
Labrada Pollán is based in Havana. Her mother, the late Laura Pollán, helped found Ladies in White in 2003.
Berta Soler leads a second Ladies in White group in Havana.
Below is Labrada Pollán's letter, in Spanish:

10 de marzo de 2016

Excmo. Sr. Barack Obama:
Presidente de los Estados Unidos de América

Quisiera darle la más cordial bienvenida a nuestro país y desearle una feliz estancia en esta tierra, que desde ya puede sentir como suya.
Cuba y los Estados Unidos de América comparten una larga historia de amistad, que no se han podido borrar de la mente de ambos pueblos durante más de 57 años de dictadura en mi país. Ya es hora que nuestros ciudadanos se encuentren a mitad del puente y lo que ellos sientan no pueda ser separado por ningún gobierno o grupo.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Barack Obama will meet with Cuban dissidents

The State Department on Friday blamed "scheduling issues" for the cancellation of John Kerry's previously announced visit to Cuba and says the secretary will travel to the island with Barack Obama later this month.
Earlier news reports had said Kerry had decided not to travel to Cuba in advance of the president because Cuban officials were supposedly refusing to allow him to meet with Cuban dissidents.
See below for transcript of today's briefing with State Department spokesman John Kirby:

MR KIRBY: Hey, everybody. Happy Friday to you. Got a couple things at the top then we’ll get on going there.

First, a call readout: This morning, Secretary Kerry spoke by phone with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez about President Obama’s upcoming trip to Cuba. Both ministers reiterated their commitment to making the visit a success and to ensuring that the path to normalization continues in the positive direction that it’s already taken. The Secretary told the foreign minister that the President is very much looking forward to the trip and to meeting with a wide array of Cuban officials and citizens to include members of civil society. Secretary Kerry expressed his own disappointment, of course, that scheduling issues prevented him from making a trip ahead – a trip to Cuba ahead of the President, but that he expects to be accompanying President Obama on this very historic occasion.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Ramón Castro dead at 91

CubaDebate reported that Ramón Castro died earlier today. He was 91. I met the oldest of the Castro brothers at his 80th birthday party. See story.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

USAID: Q&A on Cuba grants

The U.S. Agency for International Development on Wednesday extended the deadline for applications from organizations interested in providing "humanitarian assistance to political prisoners and their families, and politically marginalized individuals and groups in Cuba."
The deadline is now Feb. 29.
Grant amounts will range from $500,000 to $2 million.
USAID warns that organizations should avoid sending American citizens to Cuba as part of the program, presumably because they would be more easily detected.
Prospective applicants have submitted questions to USAID about the program. One question read:
Is this program endorsed by the Cuban government?
USAID replied:
This program operates under the jurisdiction and authority of U.S. law.
Another question dealt with the need for secrecy.
Is it possible to request a waiver for the reporting of this award on usaspending.gov due to the sensitive nature of the work?
The agency replied:
Requests for waivers are considered on a case-by-case basis. However, USAID will not be applying at this time for a deviation for this program from the DATA Act nor OMB memorandum M-15-12 regarding usaspending.gov.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Judge rejects veteran's request for federal benefits

Judge Bruce E. Kasold
A federal judge today denied a Vietnam veteran's request to have his federal benefits reinstated after he returned to his native country of Cuba more than three decades ago.
Otto Macias, 75, has no chance of appeal, according to his lawyer, Jason Flores-Williams.
Flores-Williams said in a statement:
The federal judge in Otto Macias v. the Veteran’s Administration—matter of Cuban American war hero whose benefits were terminated due to the Cuban Embargo—had three options with regard to how he could rule on the extensive, exhaustive Writ of Mandamus filed on behalf of Mr. Macias. He could: (1)order the government to respond; (2)Grant the Writ in order to bring the VA into compliance with current administration policy; (3)Deny it outright without further review.

Today, he denied it outright.

The Rules of Ethics prohibit attorneys from criticizing judges and their decisions. However, my experience has shown me that unless you are a corporation or the government, then relief within the American judicial system is rarely available. In a time of great historic change between our countries when the main sticking point is human rights, one would hope that we could at least exemplify our commitment to due process.
President George W. Bush appointed the judge, Bruce E. Kasold, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in December 2003.
He was named chief judge of the court in August 2010.
According to AllGov.com, Kasold was born in New York City in 1951. He attended St. John the Evangelist School and later graduated from Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School in New York.
He went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1973. Later he attended the University of Florida Law School. "Perry Mason" and other law shows inspired him, AllGov says.
One other bit of trivia, according to AllGov:
From November 1995 to December 1998, he worked as chief counsel for the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration and co-drafted the initial Senate resolution for the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton.
Related:
Vietnam veteran in Cuba seeks justice
Vietnam veteran languishes in Cuba

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Vietnam veteran in Cuba seeks justice

Photo: Desmond Boylan/AP
The Associated Press today reported on a Vietnam veteran's efforts to regain federal benefits that were cut off after he wound up living in Cuba.
I wrote about the case of Otto Macias on Jan. 13. Here is the top of the Associated Press story by Michael Weissenstein:
HAVANA — Otto Macias was 19 when he left Cuba in the throes of a socialist revolution, enlisted in the U.S. Army and went to fight communists as a machine-gunner in Vietnam.

He returned from battle in 1969 — broken and suffering from post-traumatic stress and schizophrenia, his family says. After years of hospitalization in New York, Macias, then a U.S. citizen, was well enough in 1980 to fly to Cuba to visit relatives he hadn't seen in decades. He never returned.

As he stayed with family in Havana, Macias' hallucinations became so bad he required hospitalization and constant care from doctors or loved ones, his relatives say. Less than a year later, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs cut off his monthly pension of $60 — a large sum for Cuba, where salaries today average about $25 a month. The U.S. agency never explained the cutoff, but the family's American lawyer says he's certain it was because of the United States' trade embargo on Cuba.

Plan would replace Office of Cuba Broadcasting

The Broadcasting Board of Governors's proposed 2017 budget calls for creation of a new, non-governmental organization that would carry out the functions of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
The budget highlights state:
Spanish Language Grantee for Cuba: BBG requests authority to establish a new Spanish language, non-Federal media organization that would receive a BBG grant and perform the functions of the current Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
The BBG requests a total of $777.8 million for fiscal 2017. That also includes $2 million in research funds to finance "impact studies to engage next-generation influencers who use mobile, social and digital media in areas experiencing violent extremism, to assist in developing audience loyalty and trust for BBG’s expanding Russian media, and to increase the impact of digital media in Cuba and Latin America."

Friday, January 22, 2016

USAID mission: Shape the Cuba narrative

A multimillion-dollar U.S. government-financed program was aimed at, among other things, developing an "information program focusing on the impact of foreign investors and foreign tourists on Cuba" and sensitizing the "business community and foreign leaders about the labor conditions and tourist apartheid in the island."
That's according to a document that the U.S. Agency for International Development released on Jan. 19 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that I made on Oct. 8, 2011.
The document describes a contract that USAID awarded to the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington, D.C., for a program called, "Uncensored Cuba."
The contract ran from March 31, 2005, to April 30, 2009, and was worth up to $7,231,663. USAID wound up paying the Center for a Free Cuba $6,652,853.12.
USAID censored details of Uncensored Cuba's budget, redacting the salaries, fringe benefits, communications, travel and other costs.
Budget details redacted
Frank Calzón, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, signed the contract. It stated:
During the three-year period of this cooperative agreement, the Center for a Free Cuba plans to focus on the following objectives:
#1: To continue its democracy building program that attempts to break Castro's monopoly of information by providing Cubans with literature on transition to democracy and market economics,

USAID announces $6 million in Cuba grants

The U.S. Agency for International Development on Thursday announced that it is offering $6 million in grants over a three-year period to organizations that will "provide humanitarian assistance to political prisoners and their families, and politically marginalized individuals and groups in Cuba."
Grant amounts will range from $500,000 to $2 million. The application deadline is Feb. 25.
In the grant notice, USAID warns against sending American citizens to Cuba.
Special thought and consideration should be given to the selection of consultants and other personnel who may be required to travel to the island. To the extent possible, travel by American citizens should be avoided. It is preferable for these personnel to speak Spanish fluently, possess solid understanding of the cultural context, and have prior experience on the island, in order to maximize their effectiveness in this unique operating environment.
The agency also says that grant recipients will be going to Cuba at their own risk and may not hold USAID responsible for what might happen to them. The notice states:
The U.S. government cannot ensure the safety and security of Recipient assets and personnel, particularly as relates to individuals traveling to Cuba under USAID funding, or project staff based in Cuba. Implementation of USAID programs in Cuba requires Recipient awareness of political sensitivities and assumption of risks associated with hostile actions of the Cuban government.
The Recipient will not serve as an agent or act under the direction of USAID and will be responsible for the efficient and effective administration of its own programs with sound business judgment, including any precautions inherent therein. ...the Recipient shall not hold USAID liable for injury, death, detainment, incarceration, kidnapping, property loss, damages, or expenses incidental to those liabilities, suffered by, or attributable to the acts, omissions or negligence of, the Recipient, its agents, or its employees implementing programs in Cuba under this NFO.
The grant program is called “Humanitarian Assistance to Cuba." The program description says:
By supporting civil society and promoting the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people, the President and the U.S. aim to empower the Cuban people to decide their own destiny.
USAID says the program is justified because "the Cuban government currently is detaining dozens of political prisoners for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression."
The grant notice says that by the end of 2015, there had been at least 8,616 political arrests in Cuba. Without getting into the merits or potential pitfalls of USAID's program, I think it's worth pointing out that many of those arrested for political reasons are taking part in programs funded by the U.S. government or U.S. government-financed organizations. I am not arguing for or against such programs or saying there are no human rights violations in Cuba, but I find it interesting that existing U.S. government programs are used to help justify and fuel the need for new programs.
Additional details about the program are below:

SECTION A: PROGRAM DESCRIPTION
1. BACKGROUND
On July 20, 2015, the United States and Cuba formally re-established diplomatic relations and re-opened embassies in each other’s respective countries. The establishment of diplomatic relations allows the U.S. to discuss matters of mutual concern that would advance U.S. national interests, such as migration, counternarcotics, disaster response, environmental protection, and support for human rights. By supporting civil society and promoting the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people, the President and the U.S. aim to empower the Cuban people to decide their own destiny.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Vietnam veteran languishes in Cuba

Cuban native Otto Macias is a former combat infantryman who fought in the Vietnam War in the ‘60s before returning to the United States, his adopted homeland.
But in 1981, with no notice, the Department of Veterans Affairs abruptly cut off his benefits. Macias was a U.S. citizen, but he had gone back to Cuba and, as the VA saw it, paying him violated the embargo.
Jason Flores-Williams
On Wednesday, lawyer Jason Flores-Williams asked a federal appeals court to restore Macias’ benefits and compensate him “for benefits that were illegally terminated.”
“By terminating his benefits without providing him notice or a hearing, the VA violated Mr. Macias’ most fundamental due process rights,” said Flores-Williams, whose office is in Denver. “The VA has a statutory obligation to provide due process and to actively ensure that Veterans are fully advised before termination of their benefits.”
Flores-Williams filed his petition on behalf of Macias in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington, D.C.
The lawyer had traveled to Havana in 2015 to meet with Macias and his relatives. He learned that Macias was born in Camagüey in 1940. He moved to the U.S. in 1961 and enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Macias was trained as a sharpshooter and a 1st Class Gunner and operated the M60 machine gun. He served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, earning the National Defense Service Medal, the Bronze Service Star and the Combat Infantryman Badge Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.
By the end of his tour of duty, Macias was suffering from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was moved to a military hospital in Vietnam in 1969, discharged honorably in 1970 “only to spend the next six years lost in a haze of mental illness.”
Flores-Williams wrote:
He lived on the streets, slept on park benches: he was the homeless Vietnam Veteran that people step over on their way into the coffee house, the Iraq War veteran sleeping in his Chevy in the parking lot behind the mall. His family in Cuba thought he was dead.
But Mr. Macias was an American war hero, broken but unbowed, a man who had lived through hell and refused to die. In 1976, he was found on the streets and taken in by friends. He applied for and was granted citizenship.
Former President Gerald Ford signed his citizenship letter, which reads, “It is my pleasure to welcome you most warmly to citizenship of the United States of America. As you share the rights and benefits of citizenship with your fellow Americans, I hope the knowledge that you are now a vital part of the Nation that Abraham Lincoln once called ‘the last, best hope of earth’ will always be a source of pride to you.”
In March 1979, the VA was paying Macias $295.83 per month in non-service connected benefits. The agency boosted the amount to $325.16 three months later before dropping it to $60 per month.
In October 1980, the State Department gave Macias permission to travel to Cuba to visit his family for one week. He had intended to return to the U.S., but began suffering hallucinations while in Havana and was hospitalized.
Flores-Williams wrote:
He suffered a mental breakdown while in Havana. We cannot say why, perhaps the ghosts of the other world. He was delusional, hallucinating, caught between lands – one of the nameless millions lost to the fog of war. Mentally disabled, formally diagnosed with schizophrenia, he was hospitalized for three months. He did not intend to stay in Cuba, but was now unable to live on his own. Mr. Macias has remained in the kind care of his family in Havana since 1981.
The VA terminated his benefits in August 1981. At the time, the Veteran’s Benefits Manual stated that the VA must follow Treasury Department regulations, which said payment of benefits to anyone on the island violated laws banning trade with Cuba.
“The effect of these regulations was to make nearly all U.S. financial transactions with Cuba illegal, so that even a disabled American war hero, like Otto Macias, was prohibited from receiving the benefits earned in service to our nation,” Flores-Williams wrote.
In July, President Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba had restored diplomatic relations. The Treasury and Commerce departments have since revamped their policies toward Cuba, but the VA has failed to do so.
Flores-Williams is calling on the VA to update its policies to fit the Obama administration’s new approach toward Cuba. The lawyer wrote:
Perhaps – and this is a debatable perhaps – at one time the governmental interest in maintaining the Cuban Embargo could be used as a justification for denial of Mr. Macias’ right to due process and equal protection, but the laws have now changed and the VA must update its policies to be in compliance with them – so that Mr. Macias’ benefits should now be restored.
Now 75, Macias is ill and his health is deteriorating. Flores-Williams wrote:
Mr. Macias is in the last days of his life. Along with his schizophrenia and PTSD, he is suffering from skin cancer. Without the expeditious intervention of this Honorable Court, he will die without ever having been afforded the due process and benefits that he has so rightly earned. This Court can use this historic opportunity to move the VA to review its policies regarding the Cuban Embargo, so that it follows the lead of the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce.
We cannot say with certainty how many thousands of Cuban-American veterans have been negatively impacted by the Cuban Embargo, but ordering the VA to update its policies will help to bring them in from the cold.
The situation is historical. It is extraordinary. There are no other adequate means by which to address this deficiency in VA policy.

Friday, January 8, 2016

$5.6 million in Cuba grants up for grabs

Department of State
Public Notice
Funding Opportunity Number: DRLA-DRLAQM-16-045

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Request for Statements of Interest: Programs Fostering Civil, Political, and Labor Rights in Cuba

I. Requested Statements of Interest Objectives
The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) announces a Request for Statements of Interest (RSOI) from organizations interested in submitting Statements of Interest (SOI) outlining project concepts and that have capacity to manage projects that will foster civil, political, and labor rights in Cuba.

PLEASE NOTE: DRL strongly encourages applicants to access immediately www.grantsolutions.gov or www.grants.gov in order to obtain a username and password. GrantSolutions.gov is highly recommended for all submissions and is DRLs preferred method of receiving applications. To register with GrantSolutions.gov for the first time, click “Login to GrantSolutions” and follow the “First Time Users” link to the “New Organization Registration Page.” On the next page, click on “Continue the GrantSolutions registration process without a DUNS number” if you do not have a DUNS number and sam.gov registration. Otherwise, select the option that best fits. For more information, please see DRL’s Proposal Submission Instructions (PSI) for Statements of Interest, as updated in July 2015, available at: http://www.state.gov/j/drl/p/c12302.htm.

The submission of a SOI is the first step in a two-part process. Prospective applicants must first submit a SOI, which is a concise, three-page concept note designed to clearly communicate a project idea and objectives without requiring development of a complete application. Upon review of eligible SOIs, selected prospective applicants will be invited to expand their ideas into an application. The intention of requesting SOIs first is to provide prospective applicants the time to develop ideas to promote internationally-recognized individual, civil, political, and labor rights - as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international instruments - in Cuba.