President Trump is a box of surprises, no one knows for sure what his position will be. On May 20, he declared that “cruel despotism cannot extinguish the flame of freedom in the hearts of Cubans” and a few days later he proposes to Congress to cut aid to dissidents.
The move went unnoticed because it was framed within the federal budget bill, where it proposes to reduce the “development aid” that the US delivers to the different countries of Latin America, from Mexico to the southern cone.
Mexico would lose almost half of the aid it receives while in the case of Cuba and Venezuela it would be totally eliminated. For the island, they spent $20 million in fiscal year 2016; While Caracas received $6.5 million.
The difference is that the “aid” to Cuba and Venezuela was directed for decades to “promote democracy”, meaning without diplomacy: to finance opposition groups, akin to Washington, that aim to achieve a change of government in the two countries.
Professor Lopez-Levy* notes that Trump’s vision distances itself from the post-war interventionist consensus and therefore also from the so-called “democracy promotion” expenditures. Instead, his focus is on more immediate security issues.
He warns, however, that this is a proposal, not the final version. It still has to pass through the Congress where the subject of Cuba will be the administration’s bargaining chip to negotiate with the Cuban-American representatives and Senators Rubio and Cruz.
On the other hand, the regional funds for specific issues remain; hence something will be devoted to the “promotion of democracy”, left to the discretion of the USAID administration, where representatives of pro-embargo positions are already present.
In any case, funding for the Cuban opposition would be substantially reduced compared to the US $20 million a year allocated to them for decades. Money that, incidentally, allowed the Havana government to refer to the dissidents as mercenaries paid by Washington.
However what actually made it to Cuba was less than $4 million. According to Pepe Hernández, leader of the anti-Castro Cuban-American National Foundation, “83% of the money designated to support democratic activists in Cuba has been spent in Miami or in foreign countries.”
Such was confirmed in a report by the US Congressional Comptroller General’s Office (GAO), whose investigators found that a portion of that money was used to buy leather coats, expensive brand chocolates and electric saws in Miami.
But even so, the amount that did arrive to Cuba was a considerable figure given the small number of dissidents.
The former top US diplomat on the island, Jonathan Farrar, said in a secret cable that dissidents don’t work to attract people, “their greater effort are directed at obtaining enough funding to support the main organizers and their foremost followers.”
Donald Trump’s attempt to leave Cuban dissidents without funds is the biggest threat they have ever received from the United States. However, it seems to be a continuation of Obama’s policy, which bet more on supporting entrepreneurs than the traditional opposition.
It is still too early to know if this budget will be approved but surely the internal and external anti-Castroites must be very concerned because all the organizations and many of the individuals that comprise them live off and make politics in Cuba and the US with those $20 million.
Even if the Cuban-American congress people succeed in reversing the budget cut, they would have to negotiate with the White House from a defensive position, which would give President Trump an advantage over pressure on Cuba and even more sensitive issues.
In 2015, at the UN, President Raul Castro demanded the cessation of all “subversion and destabilization programs against Cuba” as a requirement for the normalization of relations. Without the slightest fuss, his US counterpart proposes to Congress to take that step.
* Visiting Lecturer at Mills College, Oakland California and Doctorate Candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.
Translation: Havana Times