Havana, Cuba – Since the early 1980s, the US government has spent more than $1bn to promote democracy and the free flow of information in Cuba, according to the US Government Accountability Office, the US State Department, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
But lately, some Cuban pro-democracy activists say they are feeling abandoned.
“We’re not seeing the support that we need at such a crucial time,” said Berta Soler, leader of an opposition group called Las Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White.
Over the past 12 weeks, security forces have detained and sometimes roughed up members of Las Damas de Blanco after their weekly Sunday marches in Havana.
Soler charged the US with seeming to care more about doing business with Cuba than fighting for democracy.
“We don’t want to have McDonald’s and to have human rights violations,” Soler said. “We want that first there is respect for human rights, rights for all Cubans. And then afterwards, let McDonald’s come.”
The US government restored diplomatic relations with Cuba by opening their embassies on July 20.
Human rights in Cuba will remain a priority, US officials say.
“Of course, nobody expects Cuba to be transformed overnight,” US President Barack Obama said on July 1.
“But I believe that American engagement – through our embassy, our businesses, and most of all, through our people – is the best way to advance our interests and support for democracy and human rights,” said Obama.
In 2016, the US plans on spending $20m for programmes to strengthen Cuban civil society, support “fundamental freedoms and respect for human rights” and aid “victims of political repression and their families”.
This February, the US State Department has also requested $528,000 for a new programme called Cuba Outreach Initiative, which will operate out of the American embassy in Havana.
Officials want to develop new contacts with Cubans and expand education and cultural exchange programmes.
The State Department hopes to take advantage of a “unique political window of opportunity” in the hemisphere, a budget document said.
Sceptical of US aid
But some Cubans view these plans with suspicion, saying they fear the US government will ramp up programmes aimed at undermining their country’s socialist government.
“The American government sees this as an opportunity,” said Iroel Sanchez, a writer and blogger who supports the Cuban government.
The Cuban government has demanded an end to this aid, saying the US is interfering in their internal affairs. They also say that most Cubans do not support US government-financed groups.
Most Cuban opposition groups rely on funding from the US government or US government-financed organisations.
Las Damas de Blanco, one of the most visible opposition groups, does not discuss the precise source of its funding. The US State Department refuses to release such information, citing a need to protect aid recipients from retaliation.
Soler and other women founded the group in March 2003 to demand the release of their loved ones – 75 democracy activists, journalists and librarians who had been jailed in a crackdown that year known as the Black Spring.
Their efforts drew international attention. In 2010, the Catholic Church began brokering a deal to release the prisoners, many of whom had been sentenced to 20 or more years in prison. By March 2011, all the activists were free.
On Sundays, Soler and her followers attend mass at a church named after Saint Rita, the patron saint of lost causes. They dress in white and carry gladiolus flowers while marching quietly along Havana’s Fifth Avenue.
On March 19, some members of the group split from Soler and formed their own Las Damas organisation. Its leader, Laura Labrada Pollan, accuses Soler of misusing the group’s funds and allowing men to influence the direction of the traditionally all-female organisation.
Soler denies misusing any funds, and says men are not leading Las Damas de Blanco.
But men do join the women after the Sunday marches, because “they say that if we take punches, they’re men and they should take punches, too. We’re not going to exclude those who want to support us.”
On a recent Sunday, members of Soler’s group carried photos of political prisoners, while their male supporters stood along Fifth Avenue waving the photos at passing motorists.
Labrada Pollan’s group is less confrontational. Members also march on Sundays after mass at the Our Lady of Charity church in Havana. But they do not pass out photos of political prisoners, and security police have allowed them to march unmolested.
Labrada Pollan said security agents monitor their activities.
Be strong, everyone. Although it is hard, we are winning.
“We haven’t had any problems of them beating us, but Sunday after Sunday, the hidden eye of the political police is on us. We don’t have the slightest doubt about that,” said Pollan.
Supporting exile organisations
In addition to support for groups based in Cuba, Cuban exile organisations in Miami have received millions of dollars in federal grants over the past decade.
Directorio Democratico Cubano received $8.9m in grants from 2008 to 2013, tax records show.
Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia received $5.8m from 2007 to 2013, and the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba received $4.1m from 2009 to 2013.
Officials have spent nearly 90 percent of that money since 2004 – a year after then-President George W Bush created the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba and declared that he was ready for “the happy day when the Castro regime is no more”.
Since 1983, the US government has also spent more than $700m towards Radio & TV Marti, a Miami-based organisation that provides news to Cubans, according to the US Government Accountability Office and other sources.
That brings the total US government spending on programmes to promote democracy and the free flow of information in Cuba to more than $1bn.
Now that the US and Cuba are re-establishing diplomatic relations, Labrada Pollan said she hopes the US government “will not abandon the struggle of civil society … because it is fighting to start true democracy in Cuba”.
On June 28, members of her group marched along Fifth Avenue, yelled “Freedom!”, and then gathered in a circle under a huge fig tree near the Saint Rita church.
Soler was not there. Police had arrested her earlier that day to prevent her from marching.
Pro-democracy activist Antonio Rodiles reminded the group not to get upset and provoke the police. “Be strong, everyone,” he said. “Although it is hard, we are winning.”
The following Sunday, on July 5, Rodiles said security forces grabbed him off the streets before the march, threw him into a car and shattered his nose.
The security forces are operating with “total impunity”, Rodiles claimed in a videotaped statement.
“I don’t know where we’ll end up, because the regime is acting with total freedom to do what it’s doing.”