If you are a human rights activist or suffer under the yoke of an oppressive regime, do not expect the United States to be rushing to your assistance these days. As the U.S. government persists in pursuing engagement with less than savory regimes – such as those of Cuba and Iran – those who fight for liberty for their citizens are feeling the pinch.
Groups supporting freedom for the citizens of Iran have felt the change in tone since President Obama took office. One example was the defunding of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in New Haven, Connecticut, which was denied a $2.7 million grant last fall. Also, despite the fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January declared open season on Internet censorship on part of the U.S. government, the State Department has yet to walk the walk. “We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. Now, this challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic,” she said. Fine words, but what is the reality?
In this case, the State Department is sitting on a sizable chunk of appropriated funding — $30 million in this year’s budget — for “circumvention” technology aimed at fighting Internet censorship. This is money that could actually help shorten the timeline for when people in Iran (or China or Cuba for that matter) will be able to share their ideas freely. Yet, State’s bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor is dragging its feet on releasing the money. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), as a consequence, has threatened to place a hold on Obama administration nominees until something happens.
Similarly, support for democracy activists in Cuba is getting the squeeze – but this time from the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). In the case of Cuba, the Obama administration set out to embrace engagement with the Raoul Castro regime and eased the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba (some 300,000 are expected to make the journey in 2010). Yet, tensions between Washington and Havana have recently arisen over the fact that Cuba holds a Maryland-based USAID subcontractor, Alan P. Gross, who was detained in December and has been held since then without charge. According to Politico, Gross was at the time engaged in distributing telecommunications equipment to Cuba’s Jewish community on a USAID subcontract to promote democracy and civil society.
As a consequence, the Obama administration is changing its tack somewhat on Cuba to the dismay of Sen. Kerry. The powerful senator, according to The Miami Herald, has put a hold funding for democracy assistance, for which $40 million was appropriated for 2009 and 2010, through the State Department and USAID. This is allegedly with the purpose of reviewing whether the money is giving Americans taxpayers their money’s worth. A lack of desire to confront the abuses of the Cuban regime seems a more likely reason.
Rhetoric from Washington about human rights and freedom does not go very far, and in fact becomes counterproductive, unless policy commitments and funding are there to back it up. Emissions of hot air are not likely to impress the world’s dictators.