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    Dems, State Dept near resolution on Cuba money

    Posted on Thursday, 07.14.11

    Dems, State Dept near resolution on Cuba money
    Associated Press

    WASHINGTON — A top Senate Democrat is close to ending his hold on $20
    million that the administration had ticketed for a program to promote
    democracy in communist Cuba, a monthslong challenge to President Barack
    Obama with possible ramifications for the 2012 election.

    Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said Thursday he was
    working with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International
    Development on ensuring the effectiveness of the program to promote
    and basic freedoms. Established in 1996, the Cuba Program
    has been beset with reports that some grantees misused funds and the
    government provided little oversight.

    His goal, Kerry said in an interview, was to make sure the "money is
    well spent." He had blocked the distribution of the $20 million on April
    1, arguing that the funds weren't helping the Cuban people and instead
    were provoking the Raul regime. He was joined by Sen. Patrick
    Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees
    foreign aid, who also had serious concerns about the program's

    "Senator Kerry has been working with the State Department and USAID to
    make sure these programs represent an effective use of taxpayer funds
    and discussions remain focused on that objective," Kerry's office said
    in a statement.

    One of the outstanding issues is how the State Department will complete
    a cost-analysis review of the spending in the program.

    Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a member of the Foreign Relations panel, said
    a resolution was imminent, likely within the week.

    "There are some reporting requirements," Menendez said in an interview.
    "In my mind these programs are totally transparent. USAID has been very
    forthcoming, tons of information, probably more so than any other
    program of democracy promotion in the world. But we're happy to do it
    because we think the programs are both worthy and can stand on their own
    two feet."

    Transparency has been an issue in the standoff because the State
    Department and USAID have not provided information on the program's
    contracts requested by the Foreign Relations Committee, which has
    oversight authority over the agencies.

    The program and the dispute have exposed divisions within the
    Cuban-American community, pushed several private congressional spats
    into the public and stirred the political implications for Obama and
    Democrats facing re-election next year. It also has revived the debate
    over human rights in Cuba after more than a half century of control by
    Fidel and .

    In blocking the money in April, Kerry said he hoped the Cuban people
    "achieve greater and prosperity in the future consistent with
    their aspirations. There is no evidence, however, that the 'democracy
    promotion' programs, which have cost the U.S. taxpayer more than $150
    million so far, are helping the Cuban people." He also cited the
    imprisonment of , who was working on a USAID-funded
    democracy-building program when he was in December 2009.

    On March 11, the Maryland man was sentenced to 15 years after being
    convicted of illegally importing communications equipment. Cuba contends
    he is a spy; the U.S. disputes that claim.

    Kerry's action drew an unusual personal and public challenge from his
    House counterpart – Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the -born
    chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. In June, she accused Kerry
    of failing to understand what she called "the brutal nature of the
    Havana tyranny."

    Ros-Lehtinen held a news conference this past week with Reina Luisa
    Tamayo, whose son was a Cuban who died after an 83-day hunger
    strike. Orlando Tamayo was 42 when he died on Feb. 23, 2010. He
    had been in on charges that included disrespecting authority.

    In an interview, Ros-Lehtinen said Congress "should do everything we can
    to make sure the program and the aid get to the people. We can improve
    it. How not to improve it is by freezing the program."

    Cuban-born Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., a proponent of the program and a
    member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said he backed Kerry's bid for
    the president in 2004.

    "To say I'm disappointed in Kerry is an understatement," said Sires, who
    added: "This is democracy building. We just gave Egypt $65 million for
    society building and so forth. Why can't we do it in Cuba."

    Sires and Menendez face re-election next year in New Jersey, home to
    more than 80,000 Cuban-Americans.

    Many of the democracy programs are based in Florida, which Obama won by
    a margin of 2.8 percentage points in 2008 over Republican John McCain.
    In prevailing in the state, the Democrat captured a solid 47 percent of
    the Cuban-American vote, and any erosion of support could impact the
    outcome in 2012.

    In Florida, Carlos Saladrigas, co-chair of the business-backed Cuba
    Study Group, which does not receive U.S. funds, said the federal
    government should limit its program to helping support civil society,
    just as it has done in other countries. He said it should not be in the
    business of funding Cuban dissidents.

    "Direct help to the dissident, that should come from the Cuban
    community, brother-to-brother," he said. "They don't need that much money."

    Saladrigas argues that too often the money in support of dissidents has
    been spent outside of Cuba rather than to those on the island. He also
    said the money has been used to advance different political agendas of
    groups, sometimes sowing divisions among the very dissidents it
    was supposed to help.

    Pepe Hernandez, head of the Miami-based Cuban American National
    Foundation, which has not taken U.S. funds in decades, said the
    democracy funds were often ill-spent in the past and need to be better
    monitored, but he opposed cutting the program altogether. He says
    improvements have been made, including requiring more of the money to be
    used inside the island.

    Hernandez said his and other organizations have sought out dozens of
    international foundations dedicated to strengthening democracies, but
    very few want to work in Cuba.

    "We can do some of this on our own, but you don't do this kind of work
    with (just) hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said. "That's very
    limiting. If you have a government program with $15 million, you can do
    much more."

    Associated Press writer Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this