WASHINGTON - The detention of a U.S. government contractor in Cuba has put the spotlight on a secretive U.S. pro-democracy program that ballooned during the Bush administration but has faced persistent questions about its management and effectiveness.
The Cuba program seeks to evade the communist government's "information blockade" by sneaking computers, cell phones, DVD players, and other communications equipment onto the island. Its budget rose from about $3.5 million in 2000 to $45 million in 2008 under President George W. Bush, who made democracy promotion a priority.
Few dispute that tools such as blogs, Twitter, and YouTube are cracking the Cuban government's monopoly on information. But the jailing of the U.S. contractor - who has not been publicly identified - has highlighted the risk of trying to slip communications technology into police states.
It has also revived a debate over whether the U.S. democracy program for Cuba, like a similar one in Iran, can backfire by exposing dissidents to allegations that they are U.S. puppets.
"It taints them. It is almost a gift to the Castro regime to do that," said Ted Henken, a sociologist at Baruch College who has studied the growing Cuban blogosfera.
Since it was launched in 1997, the Cuba program has come under fire for poor management. A 2006 audit by the Government Accountability Office found that groups receiving $4.7 million in pro-democracy grants had made numerous questionable purchases, including Godiva chocolates and Nintendo Game Boys. In 2008, a former employee of one Cuban American group pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $600,000 in pro-democracy funds.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D., Mass.) called this month for a review of the Cuba program, saying it "may have noble objectives, but we need to examine whether we're achieving them." His House counterpart, Rep. Howard Berman (D., Calif.), wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in April asking for "a more robust mechanism" to track the spending and results of the "problematic" program.
The Obama administration has continued to support the program, which received $20 million in 2009 and 2010.
Supporters say that although the program's effectiveness is difficult to measure, it responds to requests from Cubans willing to take risks to exercise basic rights.
"The Castro regime pretends to have a monopoly on truth, and to take care of all the needs of Cuban society. In fact, it doesn't," said Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House, a democracy watchdog group. "And the outside support is important, because it gives Cubans greater opportunities to speak their own minds and address their own problems at their own initiative."
Cuban President Raul Castro said the contractor detained Dec. 5 was illegally providing satellite communications equipment to civil-society groups. State Department and congressional sources said the man, a Bethesda, Md., computer specialist traveling on a tourist visa, was not working with political dissidents but rather was hooking up members of a community group to the Internet.
"Anywhere else, this would be extremely innocuous activity," said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Still, the case has sparked new tensions in U.S.-Cuban relations, which the Obama administration had tried to improve with steps such as lifting restrictions on family visits to Cuba. Last weekend, Castro accused the Obama administration of increasing support for "open and covert subversion." His government has not allowed U.S. diplomats access to the contractor.
Since the Cuba democracy program took off in the mid-1990s, it has had a cloak-and-dagger flair, providing grants to nongovernmental groups that sent shortwave radios, laptops, photocopiers, books, and other items into Cuba, often in the suitcases of volunteers posing as tourists. Some grant money also goes for humanitarian aid for dissidents' families, and for activities outside Cuba focused on its human-rights record and the post-Castro transition.
In the last two years, the U.S. government has increased its efforts to slip technology into Cuba, as new rules allowed Cubans to buy cell phones and laptops. Access to the Internet remains restricted and expensive on the island. Officials at the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have turned more to private contractors, as part of efforts to improve financial accountability. One of them, Bethesda-based Development Alternatives, employs the man now in prison.