Funding for Cuba programs stalled in Congress
Posted on Wednesday, 06.08.11
Funding for Cuba programs stalled in Congress
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
WASHINGTON — An Obama administration effort to spend another $20
million on Cuba democracy programs has been blocked for two months amid
bitter clashes over policy and personalities.
Words like "backstabber" and "communist dupe" have been thrown about and
the issue is littered with leaks and counter-leaks about alleged
Sen. John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is
offering to lift the "hold" he put on the money April 1 if the amount is
cut to $15 million, according to a note sent by his committee staff to
the State Department Friday. El Nuevo Herald obtained a copy.
Committee spokesman Fred Jones declined to comment on the note but said,
"We are continuing discussions with the administration in an effort to
make sure these programs are effective and meeting real objectives."
Program supporters would not say whether the offer resolves the dispute,
which has featured Kerry, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., their staffs and
the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"It's been nasty — a Democratic committee chairman against a Democratic
administration and another Democratic senator," said a Senate aide who
asked to remain anonymous to avoid the crossfire.
At the root of the fight are sharply different visions of the Cuba
programs, which have cost $150 million since they were created in the
1990s to assist nongovernment groups on the island.
Havana denounces them as thinly varnished efforts at "regime change" and
recently displayed several lots of seized communications equipment,
including satellite dishes disguised as surf boards, it said were paid
for with U.S. funds.
Kerry, in a note to the State Department shortly after he blocked the
money, asked 13 pointed questions, essentially alleging the programs
only provoke Havana, which has made it illegal to receive the U.S. funds.
The note alleges that U.S. money was used to "mobilize protests" in Cuba
and that dissident groups are so thoroughly penetrated by Havana spies
that the U.S. aid is, in effect, helping to finance the island's
It also condemns the use of encrypted communications, secret codes and
aliases in some of the programs, and adds that some of the Cuban
recipients were not even aware their aid was coming from Washington.
Kerry also has asked U.S. investigators to look into allegations of
fraud in the programs, the note added. Program critics have privately
complained of widespread misuse of the funds in the past few years.
The State Department's reply to Kerry's questions denied U.S. funds were
used to mobilize protests, noted that "possible counterintelligence
penetration is a known risk" and called the programs effective while
"Where's the controversy here? These programs are comparable to what we
and other donors do to support democracy and human rights in repressive
societies all over the world," said Mark Lopes, USAID chief for Latin
America and the Caribbean.
El Nuevo Herald obtained a copy of the reply after it was emailed to a
large number of recipients — all but assuring, according to program
critics, that it would be leaked to the news media.
The reply didn't include a requested list of contractors and
sub-contractors involved in the programs.
Lopes said the Cuba programs are not secret but are carried out "in a
discreet manner to ensure the greatest possible safety for all those
Kerry announced his "hold" on the Cuba funds after the State Department
notified Congress March 31 that the Obama administration was ready to
begin spending the $20 million, already approved by lawmakers in 2008.
There's "no evidence" the programs help the Cuban people, Kerry said,
"nor have they achieved much more than provoking the Cuban government to
arrest a U.S. government contractor."
He referred to Alan Gross, a Potomac, Md., development specialist
arrested in Havana in 2009 after delivering U.S.-paid-for satellite
telephones to Jewish groups on the island. He was sentenced to 15 years
The State Department's notification to Congress included 17 program
areas totaling $15.7 million for "civil society and media programs,"
$2.7 million for "human rights initiatives" and $1.6 million for
Supporters of the programs say they were toned down after Gross' arrest.
Instead of satellite phones, for example, the goal now is to make it
easier for Cubans to communicate abroad with text messages.
The reply to Kerry claimed the democracy programs "have been
instrumental in raising the international profile of civil society
activists," and have taught negotiating skills to youths who later won
official approval for a rap festival that drew 14,000 people. It gave no
Canceled were programs that offered U.S. scholarships to Cuban students
— Havana would not let them out, and those that studied property rights
issues and promoted solidarity-with-dissidents conferences around the world.
The proposals for the new $20 million include programs to help gay and
disabled people, according to the State Department reply, to spend more
of the money inside Cuba and devise better ways to measure the programs'
Kerry's "hold" on the Cuba money — any single senator can block such
funds for a period of time — amounts to a replay of last spring, when he
held up a previous $20 million allocation for Cuba until it was cut to
$15 million and the State Department agreed to tone down the programs.
Like last year, the "hold" has been attacked by Menendez, who complained
that to blame Gross' jailing on the U.S. programs "is essentially an
endorsement of [Havana's] heavy-handed tactics." Lopes served on the
Menendez staff during Kerry's "hold" last year. The main Latin American
specialist on the committee's Democratic-appointed staff then and now is
Fulton Armstrong, a retired senior CIA analyst for the Western
Hemisphere who favors improving U.S. relations with Havana.