Rich donors in ze west: When attempting to bring about political reform in Egypt, forget funding dull workshops and their buffets. Cut to the chase and demonstrate the marvel that is a liberal democracy with cashmere sweaters and chainsaws. And I wouldn’t mind a new winter coat.
Cuban democracy funds spent on Game Boys
Richard Luscombe in Miami
Wednesday November 15, 2006 Guardian Unlimited
Cuban dissidents who were given millions of dollars by the US government to support democracy in their homeland instead blew money on computer games, cashmere sweaters, crabmeat and expensive chocolates, which were then sent to the island.
A scathing congressional audit of democracy-assistance programmes found “questionable expenditure” by several groups funded by Washington in opposition to President Fidel Castro’s rule on the communist Caribbean island.
The Miami-based Acción Democrática Cubana spent money on a chainsaw, Nintendo Game Boys and Sony PlayStations, mountain bikes, leather coats and Godiva chocolates, which the group says were all sent to Cuba. “These people are going hungry. They never get any chocolate there,” Juan Carlos Acosta, the group’s executive director, told the Miami Herald.
He also defended the purchase of a chainsaw he said he needed to cut a tree that had blocked access to his office in a hurricane, and said that the leather jackets and cashmere sweaters were bought in a sale. “They [the auditors] think it’s not cold there,” Mr Acosta said. “At $30 [£16] it’s a bargain because cashmere is expensive. They were asking for sweaters.”
The audit analysed $65m of spending by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) from 1996 to 2005 and concluded that poor management was to blame for the waste. “There were weaknesses in agency policies and in programme office oversight, and internal control deficiencies,” the report states.
None of the 36 groups that received money were identified in the report, but others admitted to the Miami Herald in advance of its publication today that they had been investigated.
Frank Hernandez Trujillo, executive director of Grupo De Apoyo a la Democracia (Group for the Support of Democracy), said his organisation received more than $7m from USAID, a programme that has formed a central piece of President George Bush’s policy on Cuba.
“I’ll defend that until I die,” Mr Hernandez Trujillo said of his decision to spend part of his group’s allocation on boxes of computer games. “That’s part of our job, to show the people in Cuba what they could attain if they were not under that system.”
Most of the items were distributed to dissidents in Cuba by US diplomats in Havana, who were sometimes unaware what was in the shipments.
David Snider, a spokesman for USAID, said he was awaiting a final copy of the report, but admitted that an investigation was under way into three cases highlighted by the audit.
The US government has previously accused the Cuban government of hijacking consignments sent to its Havana mission.