Cuba democracy trips can resume, U.S. says

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Organizations that receive U.S. funds to help dissident groups in Cuba can once again deliver assistance.

The Obama administration has lifted its ban on trips to Cuba to deliver U.S. aid to pro-democracy groups, apparently toughening its posture after Havana's recent abuses, officials said Thursday.

Such trips were halted after the Dec. 3 arrest of Alan P. Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor who had delivered satellite communications equipment to Jewish groups.

The State Department this week notified organizations that receive U.S. funds for Cuban democracy programs that they can resume the trips, said three officials of groups involved in the programs.

``To me, this sends a clear signal that [the Obama administration] is not in agreement with what's going on in the island,'' said one of the officials, who like the others requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

He referred to Cuba's crackdown against the Ladies in White and the death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata after a lengthy hunger strike, which drew a recent condemnation from President Barack Obama.

Word that the travel could resume was accompanied, however, by a caution: Do not take to the island more equipment or money than you can explain if you're stopped by Cuban officials.

About a dozen groups had been sending two to five travelers per month to Cuba before Dec. 3 to deliver ``technical and financial'' assistance to activists, according to several knowledgeable people.

``This is a good thing,'' said Orlando Gutierrez of the Cuban Democratic Directorate in Miami. He declined to comment on whether he would send travelers to Cuba because it would ``put people at risk.''

State Department spokesmen did not immediately return calls seeking comment, but the Obama administration has long said it favors supporting peaceful civil society activists in Cuba.

U.S. funds for pro-democracy programs in Cuba -- totaling $45 million for fiscal years 2009 and 2010 -- are handled through a complex web of nongovernment organizations and private companies that then arrange to deliver items such as laptops, radios, books and medicines as well as cash and encouraging words to dissidents and their families.


Cuba makes it illegal to receive the U.S. aid, and brands dissidents as ``mercenaries.'' The arrest of Gross -- a 60-year-old development expert from Potomac, Md., who remains jailed without charges -- cast a further chill over the programs.

The State Department sent e-mails to the organizations that receive funds on Dec. 9 and 28 urging a halt to Cuba travel. The organizations said they took the e-mails as an order, not a recommendation.

``The travel ban immediately prevented anyone from having person-to-person contacts with dissidents, the kind of contacts that this program was designed to give,'' said one official of a nonprofit.

The pro-democracy programs still face other hurdles, however, including a move last month by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., that essentially froze the funding until USAID and the State Department answer a barrage of questions about how the money is spent.

Congressional investigations discovered abuses in the programs in the past, and some members of Congress argue that Gross' arrest shows the programs must be reshaped to promote democracy more effectively and make them less ``provocative.''


Both USAID and the State Department allocate money to nongovernment organizations and private firms that in turn support dissidents, independent journalists and other civil society groups on the island.

But the funds had largely dried up as of late 2009 amid delays in releasing new funds caused by bureaucratic and political issues, including an Obama administration decision to review some programs.

Obama's pick to head USAID was sworn in only in December. And at the State Department, Deputy Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela was not sworn until November.

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