Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    U.S. funds for democracy programs in Cuba get green light

    Posted on Monday, 06.07.10
    U.S. funds for democracy programs in Cuba get green light

    Two members of Congress have freed $15 million for pro-democracy programs in Cuba, but are still blocking $2.6 million for a contractor whose employee is jailed in , according to Washington officials.

    “I am pleased the State Department has finally released these important funds,” Sen. George Lemieux, R-Fla., said in a statement Monday revealing the release of the $15 million.

    The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are expected to distribute the funds over the next months to Cuban civil society groups in the form of supplies such as computers, and aid to the families of jailed dissidents.

    The release of the funds, help up since early 2009, is likely to anger the Cuban government but brought quick praise from supporters of the dissidents.

    “At a time when dissidents are under siege, they need to know that the U.S. stands on their side,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro- U.S.-Cuba Democracy political action committee.

    State Department and USAID officials did not comment on the funds’ release, but Lemieux staffers said his office was verbally informed of the change last week.

    Congress appropriated $20 million for Cuba Democracy Assistance funds in the fiscal year that ends in September, but the funds were not released. Scandals hit the handling of the $20 million appropriated for the previous fiscal year, the Obama administration took months before it appointed a new USAID chief, and then it launched a review of the programs’ effectiveness.

    The process hit another bump when Cuban authorities Alan P. , a Potomac, Md., subcontractor for USAID on Dec. 3 after he delivered a satellite telephone system to Jewish groups. He remains in , though no charges have been filed against him.

    In its final year, the Bush administration shifted some of the Cuba money away from non-government organizations and toward contractors like Gross’ employer, Development Alternatives Inc., arguing that the contractors could better handle the money and avoid other scandals.

    But when the State Department and USAID notified Congress earlier this year that they were ready to release the $20 million for this fiscal year, Sen. John Kerry D-Mass and a House member put a “hold” on the money until they could get more information on the programs to be funded.

    The two members of Congress lifted their hold on $15 million last week but are continuing to block the other $5 million, according to two Washington officials who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The $5 million includes $2.6 million for Gross’ DAI.

    “Contractors were a bad idea from the git-go,” Claver-Carone said, arguing that private firms like DAI have little experience with totalitarian communist regimes like Cuba’s.

    Cuba regularly alleges that any U.S. assistance to civil society and groups on the island amounts to an effort to undermine the government, and brands recipients of the aid as “mercenaries.”

    Washington officials said Kerry agreed to lift part of his hold after contacts with Cuban-American Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.

    “The idea is that at a time when the in Cuba has increased so dramatically, it would send a bad message for the U.S. to stand back and let things happen,” said one of the officials.

    Asked if they expected Cuban to react angrily to the resumption of U.S. funding for democracy programs, one congressional staffer said, “ If they hated the programs before, they will hate them now.”