- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

MIAMI — Cuban activists mixed praise with concern regarding the Bush administration’s comprehensive new agenda for assisting in the democratization of Cuba once Fidel Castro’s regime comes to an end.

Released earlier this week, the 93-page report, dubbed “Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba,” was lauded for directly addressing the Cuban people and pledging monetary assistance to a future transitional government that would bring democracy to Cuba after decades of oppression.

The report outlines how $80 million would be donated to the island nation during the first two years after Mr. Castro’s demise and $20 million each subsequent year as long as the transition is under way.

But the plan may not be so simple. The Cuban leader, who turns 80 this year, has made clear his intention to keep Cuba communist even after he’s gone, naming his younger brother Raul as heir apparent.

“I think there were two positives in the report: One was the direct message to the Cuban people … that the [Bush administration] is reaching out beyond the interest of the United States,” Mauricio Claver-Carone, a member of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, told The Washington Times.

The second positive, he said, was the report’s professed dedication to freedom of information. Internet access is severely restricted and only government-owned or regime-approved news sources are allowed in Cuba.

“Cubans continue to be imprisoned for activities that Americans take for granted each and every day: Reading and viewing what they wish; accessing information from the outside world, including the Internet,” reads the report.

The United States already spends $35 million annually to fund Radio and TV Marti — a U.S. government broadcasting company that broadcasts to Cuba, but the program has found criticism in recent years for its apparent small audience.

Some Cuban activists like Alfredo Mesa, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, think it’s a mistake by spending any part of Cuban assistance money on groups that operate inside the United States.

“That money should not be spent in Miami,” said Mr. Mesa, noting that some Cuban action groups in Florida receive federal funding for salaries. Mr. Mesa’s foundation, he said, is privately funded and has refused any federal assistance during its 25 years.

For the most part, he said he was pleased with the tone and text of the new Cuba plan, though was disappointed it did not address the controversial “Wet Foot/Dry Foot” policy for Cuban emigration.

“Wet Foot/Dry Foot” allows for Cubans who reach dry land in southern Florida to stay in the country and pursue legal residency. Those found at sea, are returned to Cuba, which some contend encourages Cubans fleeing the island to risk their lives while eluding the U.S. Coast Guard, resulting in hundreds of deaths in the last few years.

Mr. Mesa noted that President Bush promised to address the policy during his 2004 re-election bid, though the report “ignored” the policy completely, a disappointment to Cuban activists.

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