An exhaustive review of Washington’s controversial Cuba democracy programs gave the U.S. Agency for International Development a passing grade but noted that the State Department must improve its links to the groups that implement the programs.
The Government Accountability Office report issued Thursday was in sharp contrast to GAO reports in 2006 and 2008 that listed numerous problems with the programs, including the purchase of Nintendo Game Boys and Godiva chocolates with U.S. funds.
Thursday’s report “should confirm that our Cuba democracy programs are comparable to what we and other donors do to support people in repressive societies all over the world,” said Mark Lopes, head of USAID’s Latin American and Caribbean section.
Secretary of State John Kerry, then chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, ordered up the latest GAO report in September 2011 as committee staffers complained the programs were ineffective and wasteful and merely provoked Cuban authorities.
Cuba has outlawed cooperation with the “subversive” programs, and USAID subcontractor Alan Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Havana for delivering sophisticated communications equipment to Cuban Jewish communities.
Congress has appropriated more than $205 million since 1996 — the majority after 2004 — for the Cuba programs, officially designed to support non-government sectors, including dissidents, women and youths, and promote freedom of information.
The 58-page report by the GAO, the government’s main internal watchdog agency, after a 15-month audit had no recommendations — a rarity — for USAID, which has handled most of the funds for the Cuba democracy programs.
USAID issued proper guidance to the “partner” groups hired to carry out the programs, kept track of “subpartners” and hired an external auditor to ensure the funds would be used for the right purpose and in accordance with U.S. laws, the GAO noted.
“We have increased transparency and financial monitoring, and we are please that GAO has recognized that,” Lopes told El Nuevo Herald by phone from Washington.
Tracey Eaton, who has published thousands of pages on the democracy programs in his Cuba Money Project web page, said he asked USAID for a copy of the external audit and received only a heavily redacted 10 pages that omit most findings and recommendations.
Jose Cardenas, a former USAID official for Latin America in the George W. Bush administration, said the past problems with the Cuba programs stemmed in part from the sudden jump in funding in 2004.
“In the old days, when it was a smaller program, it was run … without many controls and a lot of faith in the grantees,” he wrote in an email to El Nuevo Herald. Now “there’s more money and, of course, more scrutiny. But this report demonstrates that the controls have caught up to the implementation.”
The State Department, which handled about one third of the funds since 2004, but has not had as much experience as USAID handling democracy programs, did not fare so well, however.
Department officials did not issue proper guidance to the partners or subpartners, did little financial monitoring and hired outside auditors only in September 2012, according to the GAO report.
“Because of resource constraints, State did not perform financial internal controls reviews for more than two-thirds of its implementing partners during fiscal years 2010 through 2012,” the report noted.
“GAO is recommending that State take steps to improve its financial monitoring of implementing partners and provide clear guidance for approving subpartners,” it added. “State concurred … and cited steps they are taking to address them.”
The report made no mention of Gross, his work in Cuba or the broader debate over whether the democracy programs are effective in helping the country’s civil society or merely provoke the Cuban government.
But it notes that there is another version of the report that is “sensitive but unclassified.” USAID does not release the names of most of its partners and subpartners, for instance, to protect them from Cuban authorities.
“Although the information provided in this (public) report is more limited in scope, it addresses the same questions and uses the same overall methodology as the sensitive report,” it notes.
Cuba is “a Communist state that restricts nearly all political dissent on the island” it adds, and conditions on the island “pose security risks to the implementing partners — primarily NGOs — and subpartners that provide U.S. assistance.”
“Tactics for suppressing dissent … include surveillance, arbitrary arrests, detentions, travel restrictions, exile, criminal prosecutions, and loss of employment,” the report added.
GAO investigators worked on the report from September 2011 until last month, made at least one trip to Havana, interviewed scores of people and had access to tens of thousands of documents, said one knowledgeable U.S. government official. It was officially delivered to Kerry’s office Jan. 25.