HAVANA (AP) – The millions the U.S. government spends to promote political change in communist Cuba should go directly to those on the island working to foment democracy or not be spent at all, leading dissidents said Thursday.

In a letter to President Barack Obama, eight members of the tiny but vocal Cuban political opposition wrote “if the government of the United States cannot guarantee that aid for the promotion of democracy in Cuba really arrives … inside our country, then it would be better to cancel those funds and use them for other objectives.”

Critics – including the influential Cuban-American National Foundation – have long complained that the vast majority of Cuban democracy funds go to U.S.-based organizations and universities that spend much of the money on overhead and logistical costs instead of efforts on the island.

The dissidents said they turned the letter over to officials at the U.S. Interests Section, the diplomatic mission Washington uses in place of an embassy, for delivery to Obama.

They passed out copies to foreign journalists at a subsequent news conference.

Among those who signed it were former political prisoner Hector Palacios and Elizardo Sanchez, another ex-prisoner whose independent human rights organization produces lists of political prisoners held on the island.

The dissidents said that they personally were not interested in receiving funding from Washington – a practice that could expose them to prosecution for taking foreign payments to undermine the government.

Instead, they said U.S. money should go to “the Cuban people,” including political opposition leaders who are also Cuban citizens.

Palacios was among 75 dissidents and political activists jailed in 2003 but was later released on a provisional medical parole. He calculated that Washington spends $48 million annually promoting democracy and human rights in Cuba. The precise amount is difficult to pinpoint because funds come from many different federal agencies.

According to a government audit in November, between 1996 and 2008, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Cuba Program alone awarded about $83 million in grants to organizations and universities working for democracy in Cuba. The money goes for things such as humanitarian aid, uncensored books, human rights training and advocacy for human and worker rights.

The Miami-based Office of Cuba Broadcasting, meanwhile, has a 2009 budget of $34 million for TV and Radio Marti, which beam pro-change broadcasts into the country.

Thursday’s letter praised Radio Marti, saying its broadcasts “continue to have great importance, despite the massive electronic interference of the Cuban government.”

But the letter said TV Marti’s signal “simply does not reach Cuban homes.”

“In that case, government interference is almost 100 percent effective,” it said.

AP-ES-04-09-09 1316EDT

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