Promoting democracy or shaping a slanted narrative?

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Over the past two decades, the U.S. government has spent millions of dollars on projects aimed at boosting independent journalism and the free flow of information in Cuba.
The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, pay contractors to do the work. One contractor, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, or IWPR, set up a base in Mexico City and rented office space in Cuba while running projects for the State Department, records show.
The group’s 2016 annual report stated:

On February 15, 2016, the Institute entered into an 12 month lease agreement for office space in Cuba with monthly rent of $1,636. The lease terminated on February 14, 2017.

The institute’s main offices are in London, Amsterdam and Washington, D.C. The group’s executive director Anthony Borden said in a statement:

The Institute for War & Peace Reporting helps give people voice in the most challenging of environments so that information can be shared and concerns can be heard. The organization takes no political position and we do not seek or support political change. But we do hold fast to core values of human rights and dignity, and we believe that the foundation of this is people’s right to express themselves.

The federal government’s Foreign Aid Explorer shows that the National Endowment for Democracy, or NED, gave the IWPR just one Cuba award worth $109,833 from 2010 to 2018. That was in 2017 and the NED got the money from the State Department.
Federal audits show the institute actually received much more than that – at least $1,584,083, according to audits in 2015-2016 and 2016-2017.
According to the audits, the group received $1,106,843 for the following programs in 2016:

  • Democracy, Leadership & Communication: Building the Capacity of Cuban Civil Society to Communicate, Advocate & Organize: $409,275.
  • Open Voices: A Project to Promote and Protect Independent Journalism in Cuba: $466,211. See collection of articles, including forward by Yoani Sánchez.
  • Professionalization and Better Management of Independent Cuban News Providers: $216,159
  • Journalism in Cuba Supporting & Strengthening Increasing the Relevance & Reach of Independent Journalism in Cuba: $15,198

The total in 2017 was $477,240:

  • Democracy, Leadership & Communication: Building the Capacity of Cuban Civil Society to Communicate, Advocate & Organize: $82,566.
  • Open Voices: A Project to Promote and Protect Independent Journalism in Cuba: $608.
  • Professionalization and Better Management of Independent Cuban News Providers: $7,088.
  • Journalism for Society: Increasing the Relevance & Reach of Independent Journalism in Cuba: $386,978.
With Open Voices with a forward by Yoani Sánchez

Since 2000, the State Department and USAID have spent at least $230,764,091 on democracy-promotion projects targeting Cuba. That includes at least $19,299,523 in projects designed to support the media and expanding the free flow of information. See breakdown.
Advocates say the media programs give a voice to the powerless, pressure the government to make democratic reforms and highlight underreported issues.
Critics say the projects build a negative and slanted narrative about Cuba, reinforce U.S. government claims about the country and justify the need to spend more tax dollars on democracy promotion.
IWPR’s activities in Cuba go beyond journalism. The group’s stated mission is:

To empower Cuban civil society to build a durable democracy in Cuba that is free of human rights violations by enhancing on-island civil society’s awareness and effectiveness in nonviolent activism and by facilitating civic training materials, communication equipment, thematic “know-how” manual (e.g. entrepreneurship, micro-financing, etc.) and financial support along with creating awareness and documenting, within the island and the international community, human rights violations while collaborating with international and on-island nongovernmental organizations to provide for additional expertise and resources to provide humanitarian aid.

The IWPR’s 2016 annual report report stated:

Our energetic Latin America team, based in Mexico City, continues groundbreaking work in Cuba and is extending regional programming to selected countries in Central and South America. The work ranges from basic journalism training to supporting links between media and civic society groups, as well as significant digital security programming.
IWPR organised the first-ever forum to focus on the independent journalism sector in Cuba, bringing together 72 journalists and civil society groups working on freedom of expression from around the region. Held in Miami, the forum provided a space where, for the first time, journalists from Cuba shared their views and concerns and built common strategies on relevant issues, such as a law to protect journalists in response to the Cuban government’s proposal to ban independent media. Perhaps the most interesting outcome was the coming together of older and younger generations of Cuban independent journalists, who had previously viewed each other with mistrust.
Elsewhere, thanks to IWPR, a group of Cuban journalists gained full access to the Panama Papers and published one of the first articles demonstrating links between Cuban officials and private offshore companies. See article. Moreover, the journalists learned how to handle such massive data stores and build stories from them, providing them with useful skills for future work in investigative and data journalism. Several CSOs have already used the tools and methodologies provided to them through our projects. For example, one organisation independently started a communications and advocacy campaign for the release of a political prisoner, following IWPR methodologies regarding campaign design and several of the communications tools learned through our project. Likewise, IWPR’s digital security work in Ecuador, Mexico, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Honduras, which started in mid-2016, has shown early signs of acceptance and sustainability. In Honduras for example, IWPR’s gender-appropriate workshops have been replicated within a network of 16 women human-rights defender organisations. In Venezuela, where independent voices are increasingly at risk, IWPR’s partner has taken the issue of digital security to an assembly of national CSOs, which has agreed to integrate a secure communications system to allow them to network safely.

The institute’s 2015 annual report states:

IWPR implemented three projects in Cuba: Open Voices, to build journalism capacity and enhance protection for at-risk journalists; Independent News Providers, to build the capacity of three news agencies and improve journalistic output and reach; and Democracy, Leadership and Communications, to help Cuban civil society groups clarify and focus their objectives and messaging. See security guide for journalists working in Cuba.
In 2015, Open Voices trained 46 journalists, with a dozen learning skills of investigative reporting and producing high-impact reports on subjects ranging from sex trafficking to corruption and profiteering by Mexican and Cuban officials.
Also, six journalists spent a month at prestigious media outlets in Mexico, allowing them to expand their networks and gain an unprecedented opportunity to understand the workings of the media under “conditions of greater freedom of expression.”
IWPR also helped the Cuban Press Freedom Association develop a Center for Attention to Journalists, to provide digital, psychological and legal support to journalists targeted by the government.
Independent News Providers assisted in the consolidation of two media groups in the central and eastern parts of the country; through IWPR’s support – including training, nancial assistance and business and strategic mentoring – each are now producing and publishing news on events in their regions.
IWPR helped six Cuban civil society group focus their approaches, extend their partnerships, and develop advocacy campaigns around electoral reform, gay rights, violence against women, electoral reform and other issues.
The work had a profound impact, “changing the face of independent journalism in Cuba” according to a leading writer and former political prisoner, “creating a new generation of journalism” focusing on fact-based reporting rather than politicised opinion.

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