HAVANA — ARE American officials in Cuba too close to the country's political dissidents for the dissidents' own good?
That's the view some Cuba watchers have taken after recent incidents put a new light on American involvement with the political opposition here - and on how Cuban officials use such association to discredit the regime's foes.
The row over the activities of American officials inside Cuba stems from recent comments by National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon accusing the United States of sponsoring the Cuban regime's opposition and paying its bills.
Mr. Alarcon, who often represents the government of Cuban President Fidel Castro Ruz on the international stage, told an audience in generally Cuba-friendly Canada recently that officials at the US Interests Section office [a de facto embassy] in Havana were known to give many kinds of support to those seeking to foment instability in Cuba.
Alarcon knew from experience what he was talking about - at least to a certain degree. Earlier in Havana, the Cuban leader had come face-to-face with some of Cuba's best-known dissidents who had been transported by American officials in Cuba to a meeting in a Havana hotel with Rep. Joe Moakley (D) of Massachusetts. Alarcon was there to meet with the congressman as well. Alarcon was not pleased to see them and touted the incident overseas, citing it as proof of American meddling in Cuba.
US denies assertions
The US dismisses such accusations, noting that the American government is in contact with all types of political parties, human rights organizations, and nongovernmental groups in countries around the world.
"The assertion that the US Interests Section or the US government is 'paying the bills' of dissidents or of groups supporting democracy or human rights inside Cuba is absurd," the State Department said in a response to Alarcon.
"Do we meet with such groups or individuals? Yes, of course we do," continued the statement. "It is our policy, and our job, to remain in touch with the broadest possible spectrum of Cuban society."
The problem for Cuba's dissidents is that close association with the US leaves them vulnerable to Cuban government claims that they are merely creations and pawns of the American government.
And that, in turn, makes it easier for the Cuban government to claim that the dissidents have no broad public appeal - not because they are repressed by the regime, but because they are a foreign imposition.
In a recent interview, Cuban foreign ministry official Carlos Fernandez de Cossio made just that kind of dismissal of Cuba's opposition as a US creation that is official Cuban policy.
"We know this Concilio is a fabrication. It has no roots in Cuba," said Mr. de Cossio, referring to Concilio Cubano, the federation of Cuban opposition and human rights groups founded last year. "It is an invention of the United States."
Cuba's dissidents respond that since the government does not allow them to speak freely with Cubans, they have no choice but to work through foreigners.
"The government's accusation against us is rather disingenuous," says Gustavo Arcos, one of the deans of Cuba's dissidents who participated with Castro in the first abortive attack on former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1953.
"We have no way to communicate our truths to the people here," he says, "so we are left to communicate with the international press and embassies, primarily those of the US and Spain."
Who funds the dissidents?
When pressed on the funding accusations, Cuban officials say the $1.5 million in annual funding they estimate goes to the country's dissidents from the US comes primarily from organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House, and Human Rights Watch Americas.
They also note that a new US law aimed at tightening the economic embargo on Cuba and bringing down the Castro regime calls for $5 million in annual funding to promote democratic change in Cuba.
"That's a big increase from $1.5 million," says Carlos Batista Odio, assistant director of the Center for United States Studies at the University of Havana.
But if anything close to $1.5 million is coming to Cuba's opposition every year from the US, a number of dissidents wonder why they aren't seeing it.
"Our biggest problem after the repression we face is the lack of resources to do the kind of grass-roots work we'd like to do," says Manuel Cuesta Morva, a member of Cuba's illegal social democratic movement. "I think the proof we're not getting any money is our material state."