Posted on Wednesday, 08.04.10
U.S. AGENCY FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
USAID program aims to help `marginalized groups' in Cuba
USAID is seeking proposals for a new aid program to Cuba that would
promote grass-roots economic development.
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
A new U.S. aid program is offering $3 million to promote grass-roots
economic development in Cuba — an apparent attempt at a more indirect
approach to encouraging change on the island.
The U.S. Agency for International Development said in a document that
the program is aimed at “marginalized groups,'' such as those living in
rural areas, ethnic and religious minorities, orphans and vulnerable
children, rural women and people with disabilities.
In another document, USAID added that the program also could benefit
groups of private farmers and privately run bed-and-breakfasts, as well
as the barbershops, beauty salons and taxi businesses recently handed
over to some of their employees by the government.
The new program coincides with efforts by the Raúl Castro government to
expand private economic activity in order to increase productivity, trim
the overloaded state payroll and ease Cuba's economic crisis.
USAID in the past has funded a few small and very low-profile efforts to
foster economic development on the island, veterans of the agency's
pro-democracy efforts in Cuba said.
It's not clear how the new program compares with the previous ones, but
a USAID statement e-mailed to El Nuevo Herald said it “is limited to
groups that are particularly marginalized and will help empower them to
participate in civil society.''
Cuba has sometimes regarded USAID programs on the island as
“subversive'' and jailed dissidents who received some of the U.S. aid
as Washington “mercenaries.''
A USAID letter describing the new program said it is designed to aid
“self-employment and entrepreneurial activities'' and explore the
possibility of establishing small-scale lending arrangements known as
microfinancing. Cubans who benefit from the program could later pool
their savings under the microfinancing agreement, and USAID grantees
could match those funds, according to the letter.
Jose Cardenas, who headed USAID's Cuba programs during the later years
of the George W. Bush administration, said the programs he managed were
designed to be “catalytic — to stoke or accelerate positive change.''
He described the Obama administration approach as “laying the
groundwork for more gradual, evolutionary change.''
The USAID letter included a caution: “Given the nature of the Cuban
regime and the political sensitivity of the USAID Program, USAID cannot
be held responsible for any injury or inconvenience suffered by
individuals traveling to the island under USAID grant funding.''
Alan P. Gross, an agency subcontractor who delivered satellite
communications equipment to Cuba's tiny Jewish community, has been
jailed without charges in Havana since Dec. 3.
USAID's official description of the program was contained in a letter
known as Request for Applications, seeking proposals by private firms or
non-government groups that want to run the $3 million, 36-month program.
The RFA was dated June 18 and set a July 19 deadline for applications.
There was no indication when USAID would make its selection.
In a speech Sunday to Cuba's legislature, Castro announced the
government would soon allow an expansion of self-employment in jobs such
as plumbers and wedding photographers and ease restrictions that limit
employees of those businesses to family members.
The government also has approved a step-by-step process for cutting down
state payrolls, he announced. He had previously estimated the number of
state workers in unnecessary jobs at more than one million.
Castro's government also has loaned 2.5 million acres of fallow state
lands to private farmers, in hopes of trimming food imports that now
account for 60 to 80 per cent of the island's consumption.
The state media in Cuba has published several stories on the need to
provide production credits to the new farmers.
The $3 million is part of $15 million for USAID's so-called Cuba
Democracy programs that became available in June, after Sen. John Kerry,
D-Mass., lifted the “hold'' he had put on the money until he obtained
more information on how it was to be spent.
Kerry has argued that while he favors U.S. aid to civil society groups
in Cuba, some of the more aggressive parts of past USAID programs were
inefficient and sometimes even counter-productive.
Phil Peters, a Cuba expert with the Lexington Institute in suburban
Washington, said he welcomed the program's goal of promoting small-scale
Its aim differs from the George W. Bush administration's “assumption
that it's in the U.S. interest to hold down the Cuban economy,'' said
Peters, who first published the RFA on his blog, The Cuba Triangle.