A U.S. government-financed group working in Cuba hired subcontractors from Costa Rica, Mexico and other countries to avoid attracting the attention of Cuban intelligence agents, the organization’s former director said.
John Sanbrailo, director of the Pan American Development Foundation from 1999 to 2017, said his organization taught the subcontractors “how they could safely work in Cuba without getting into trouble or even placed in jail.”
“We guided and supervised them,” he said. “And we’ve been involved in Cuba now for almost 20 years without major problems.”
Sanbrailo discussed the Cuba projects in an interview conducted in June 2017 and released earlier this year as a part of a U.S. Agency for International Development oral history project.
“There have been important achievements in community organization and responding to humanitarian needs that we could clearly not publicize because they would endanger counterparts on the Island,” Sanbrailo said.
“USAID appreciated this approach. PADF was the only one doing it on such a scale. We later adapted this strategy to our operations in Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and other countries that were moving toward authoritarian regimes.”
USAID gave PADF $32,904,899 to carry out Cuba projects from 2003 to 2019. The agency was reluctant to release details of the foundation’s Cuba work in response to a Freedom of Information Act request in 2015. See “USAID contractor’s work still a mystery.”
Sanbrailo worked at USAID before joining the foundation, an affiliate of the Organization of American States.
According to the oral history interview, excerpts of the which are below, he was adept at raising funds.
Q: And you were tremendously successful over 18 years?
SANBRAILO: Yes, we mobilized and expended almost $1.0 billion in funds, helping millions of vulnerable and low-income people. We provided the OAS and donors with a reinvigorated PADF that was a trusted partner known for exceeding donor expectations. We were able to operate in some of the most challenging countries like Colombia, Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua. We created a foundation that had significant momentum that could carry forward the program for a number of years.
During my final years at the Foundation (2013-2017), PADF’s budget exceeded the regular budget of the OAS, which amazed everyone. And we did it by keeping focused on what was really important—maximizing impacts on beneficiaries, winning grants, resisting bureaucratic processes and institutional rivalries, rejecting interpersonal disputes, maintaining a flat organizational hierarchy, and staying relevant to our Inter-American mandate and origins.
Q: What did you do in Cuba, early on? What have you been able to do, since that’s one place that not many others can work in?
SANBRAILO: This initiative, of course, emerged from the Cuban Democracy and Liberty Act approved and funded in the late 1990s. What PADF has been doing, largely with USAID and State Department grants, is building grassroots democracy and nurturing the emergence of independent civil society. We saw our strategy as preparing the groundwork for a democratic transition that might follow after the passing of the Castro brothers and when the Cuban people are able to demand more freedom. This was PADF’s historic role and the very reason it was created — to empower citizen groups and the private sector to play a more significant part in the development of their countries. We didn’t enter Cuba just because it was Cuba. We saw Cuba as a fundamental feature of PADF’s mandate in the region.
When the Pope visited Cuba in the late 1990s, he urged Fidel Castro to allow for greater freedoms, especially the right to read books that had been prohibited by the regime. Fidel responded publicly, “Any Cuban can read anything.” The Cuban people then started pulling out those books that had been banned and hidden for over 40 years. With them they created small community libraries. PADF began sending more books to those libraries and helping them to organize seminars on community engagement. It was the beginning of empowering citizens to think about, “How you engage with your community? How you come together to address community problems?” “What would greater citizen participation look like and what could it achieve within a totalitarian society?”
We began working with groups such as the Freemasons and the Masonic Lodges. They were the only surviving civil society organizations, other than religious groups, that had not been destroyed by the Revolution. There were about 30,000 Freemasons in the country organized into about 150 to 200 lodges around the island. The reason they survived was because the great Cuban independence leader, Jose Martí, was a Mason. But, the lodges were heavily infiltrated by Cuban intelligence so we had to be careful.
We started working with the Masons on book and youth programs, entrepreneurship training, junior achievement-like projects to establish micro-enterprises, or projects for developing community pharmacies to provide medicines not available on the Island. We sent in-kind donations and small private grants of $5,000 to $10,000 to support them in ways that did not attract a great deal of attention. We implemented most of them through our NGO partners in other LAC countries rather than directly ourselves.
Q: Partners, meaning –
SANBRAILO: Latin American civil society groups that received grants from PADF to work in Cuba. In keeping with our OAS mandate, we wanted to make the program a hemispheric initiative. USAID liked our approach. It allowed us to play a low profile role. At the same time, the Cuban Intelligence Service did pick up our trail and placed the Foundation on a blacklist that could have endangered our staff who might have traveled there.
A Cuban Intelligence informant later advised the government about several of our travelers that made operations difficult for some of them. We overcame this obstacle. It was challenging for the GOC to track a larger number of Latin American NGOs who could work more independently in Cuba because of the regime’s stated policy of encouraging “people to people” exchanges with other LAC countries. At the same time, there were major obstacles for them operating on the Island and several were detained but subsequently released. Because of our excellent staff, we became quite adept at helping our partners work within a totalitarian system. We became one of USAID’s most trusted partners.
Q: These Latin American NGOs had their own programs?
SANBRAILO: Yes, we provided them with grants to work in Cuba on activities that they designed and implemented and that reflected their priorities. All of them had similar human rights or democracy initiatives in their own countries and were strong supporters of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Many were seeking ways to test their methodologies in other countries. Cuba was an intriguing place for them to work.
Other groups had expertise in organizing and managing small libraries and community engagement and relished the idea of bringing a degree of freedom to Cubans. They recognized the potential danger of working in a closed society, but were enthusiastic about doing it. As with other programs, PADF was building a regional network that could advocate for greater freedom in Cuba and help nurture the emergence of civil society and the private sector at the grassroots. It was the vital role that PADF had played throughout much of its 55 year history.
Q: So, you have no staff in Cuba?
SANBRAILO: That is correct. We carried out programs largely through NGOs in Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and other countries. We guided and supervised them. We helped refine their methodologies and helped them adapt their operations to the Cuban reality. We showed them how they could safely work in Cuba without getting into trouble or even placed in jail. PADF developed a unique training methodology and security procedures. We closely supervised them, coordinating with the donor, but each group designed its own work plan and had a great deal of flexibility to implement it.
And we’ve been involved in Cuba now for almost 20 years without major problems. There have been important achievements in community organization and responding to humanitarian needs that we could clearly not publicize because they would endanger counterparts on the Island. USAID appreciated this approach. PADF was the only one doing it on such a scale. We later adapted this strategy to our operations in Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and other countries that were moving toward authoritarian regimes.
Unlike a Washington-based consulting firm whose representative was jailed in Cuba for trying to carry out similar programs, we did not have problems because of our careful selection of staff and LAC partners and close monitoring. The American citizen who was jailed, first sought a job at PADF. We saw problems with him, especially in terms of his limited language skills and lack of experience operating in a country like Cuba. We did not select him. He later gravitated to another group that ended up in a terrible tragedy for him, his family and for U.S. policy. (See “Alan Gross: A soldier left behind.”) Our staff and others had cautioned USAID about the potential dangers of using groups that did not have experience on the Island and of sending American citizens to do this type of work. We believed it was best done by Latin Americans.
Q: You didn’t want to provide computers as the consulting firm was doing?
SANBRAILO: PADF did provide basic computers and cellphones but we based this assistance on what could reasonably be used in Cuba without attracting a great deal of attention. We first undertook analyses with those on the Island and then came up with small computers and useable cellphones, unlike the approach by others. We involved our LAC partners in adopting the technology to the existing limitations. We regularly received on-Island inputs. We kept a low profile so this effort would not attract attention, yet still be demand-driven by local needs.
This was the essence of our strategy. PADF had to be more adept at dealing with these challenging countries than other groups. We had to be nimble and flexible. We had to maintain a low profile so as not to produce incidents within the OAS and Inter-American System. We were not well funded and could not run the risk of having to defend staff or partners who might get into legal trouble. It was a risky undertaking, but we fully appreciated the risks and carefully managed them.
As I mentioned, we had a Foundation that could not produce general development funds. We didn’t have money, other they tightly controlled project assistance. So we couldn’t directly compete against the larger Washington NGOs or consulting firms which were better financed. Many of them were making significant revenue in USAID programs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They could then subsidize their activities in Latin America in ways that PADF could not do. So, we had to carefully carve out niches where few others could work. This strategy allowed us to grow from the low levels of the 1990s to over $95 million in annual expenditures.
Postscript: Sanbrailo died at his home in Virginia on April 20, according to the foundation.