Tags: Bill | Gives | $100 | Million | Castro | Foes

Bill Gives $100 Million to Castro Foes

Thursday, 17 May 2001 12:00 AM

The Cuban Solidarity Act would authorize the funneling of $100-million over four years in cash, office equipment and pro-democracy material, as well as food and medicine, to opposition and non-governmental groups in Cuba.

Said to be modeled on the proposal for U.S. support of Poland's Solidarity movement in the 1980s, the law was presented by Sens. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Joseph Lieberman, the former Democratic vice presidential candidate.

The bill, which also has the backing of Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., was described by Helms as "a blueprint for a more vigorous U.S. policy to liberate the now enslaved island of Cuba."

Beneficiaries would include dissidents, independent journalists and economists, human rights activists, religious groups and political prisoners and their families.

But the bill immediately came under fire from policy analysts as well as a number of the dissidents in Cuba it is designed to assist.

"We can't accept that sort of help," said Elizardo Sanchez, the most prominent public critic of Castro currently not in jail. "No people's freedom is won with money, no matter how big the quantity," he added, speaking by telephone from Havana.

Cuba analysts said most other leading dissident figures were already on record as rejecting direct U.S. government aid. The Cuban government also blasted the Helms-Lieberman bill.

"All I can say to those people is that Cuba ceased being a Yankee colony in 1959," said Luis Fernandez, spokesman at the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington.

The Cuban Solidarity Act is the first major anti-Castro initiative in Congress since the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, also sponsored by Helms. That law tightened the embargo by threatening to punish foreign companies that invest in confiscated property in Cuba.

The new bill would mark a major shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba. Unlike previous efforts to punish Castro externally by economic means, the Cuban Solidarity Act seeks to undermine the legitimacy of the Cuban government itself by sowing the seeds of a democratic overthrow from within. A similar bill has been introduced in the House.

"We are taking a new step. We are going into the island," said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, Miami's main exile group. Garcia and others say critics of the bill underestimate the growth of the "internal resistance" in Cuba.

"This is the endgame. Now we are going to foment civil society in the island," he said.

But several Cuba analysts said the new bill was just as likely to fail to dislodge Castro as previous efforts by Congress.

"They are attempting a covert program through overt means. That won't work," said Philip Peters, vice president of the Washington-based Lexington Institute. "The dissidents don't want it and Castro won't allow it."

Peters and others worried that direct U.S. aid would provide Castro with new ammunition to back up Havana's long-held assertion that internal dissidents were the paid agents of Washington. It could also lead to greater political repression of dissidents, they said.

"I am sort of stunned by the magnitude of this," said Wayne Smith of the Center for International Policy, a leading advocate of lifting the 38-year-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba.

"A hundred million dollars to go to opposition groups in Cuba. I'd hate to be a dissident in Cuba with that kind of help from Washington."

Advocates of the bill say that sort of criticism is to be expected. "The sad truth is that Fidel Castro is already tormenting these people -- systematically and relentlessly," said Helms. It would be wrong for the United States to turn its back on those willing to stand up to Castro, he said. "Let Castro do his worst. Let us do our best."

The Helms-Lieberman legislation would authorize funding for almost any activity in Cuba not linked to the Cuban government, including libraries, small businesses and agricultural cooperatives, even privately run senior citizen centers and soup kitchens.

The bill also urges the president to instruct the attorney general to "bring to justice" those Cubans involved in the February 1996 shootdown of four Miami exiles. "Pending indictments also tell us that Castro and his cronies are up to their noses in cocaine smuggling," according to a statement from Helms' office.

The concept of U.S. government support for the dissidents in Cuba is not new. But the Helms-Lieberman proposal would vastly expand the 1996 embargo law, which for the first time created a fund for pro-democracy activities in Cuba.

Since then a number of groups have been using U.S. government grants to quietly send books, medicines and other materials to groups and individuals in Cuba via private channels.

Perhaps the best known group, the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba, says it has been awarded three grants since 1998 totaling about $1.45-million. The group uses the money to buy and publish books and pamphlets that are distributed in Cuba.

"I send everything," said Frank Calzon, the group's director. "We have sent close to 100,000 (items) from Animal Farm to children's books."

But other Cuban exile groups in Miami who work with dissidents in Cuba said they would not touch U.S. government money.

"It's unhealthy for everyone," said Nancy Perez Crespo of the Nueva Prensa Cubana, a privately financed, Miami-run Internet outlet for independent Cuban journalists.

"We've been doing this sort of thing quietly for six years without publicity," she said. "Now Cuba is going to be monitoring us all."

While some dissidents would likely reject the aid, others might find it hard to refuse. "If you don't have food or anything to write with and someone comes along with money, you'll be tempted to take it from the devil himself," she said.

© st. petersburg times. All Rights Reserved.

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The Cuban Solidarity Act would authorize the funneling of $100-million over four years in cash, office equipment and pro-democracy material, as well as food and medicine, to opposition and non-governmental groups in Cuba. Said to be modeled on the proposal for U.S....
Thursday, 17 May 2001 12:00 AM
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