The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has been left out of the $17.5 million appropriated for Cuba democracy programs this fiscal year, amid complaints over partisan political fighting and agency mishandling of the programs.
Instead, the funds will go to the State Department’s Bureaus of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) and Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) as well as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a non-profit in Washington.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a member of the House Appropriations committee, said Congress approved cutting USAID out of Cuba funds for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30 “because there was agreement that USAID frankly needed to get its act together on the Cuba program.”
USAID’s pipeline has $60 million to $70 million in unspent funds for Cuba programs, Diaz-Balart said. He added that it has spent Cuba-tagged money on other programs and granted $3.4 million to a group with little experience, the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba.
The Miami Republican has long been critical of the grant to the Miami non-profit, founded and still closely linked to the leadership of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), which backs President Barack Obama.
USAID spokesperson Karl Duckworth said that a report last year by the Government Accountability Office highlighted the agency’s improved management and oversight of the Cuba programs and contained no recommendations for further changes.
The agency “is proud of the recent reforms recognized by the GAO that isolate the grant selection process from political influence, ensure fair and transparent competition for resources, and focus program impact on the island,” Duckworth said in an email to el Nuevo Herald.
CANF President Jose “Pepe” Hernandez said if there’s any truth to reports Diaz-Balart was a key force behind the decision to leave USAID out of the money, “then Mario has done a great favor to the Cuban regime.” Diaz-Balart noted that both the House and Senate approved the change.
Hernandez added that cutting USAID out of the $17.5 million throws away the agency’s 18 years of experience with Cuba programs launched in 1996 to support civil-society and dissident groups on the communist-ruled island.
The Obama administration also did not object strongly to cutting the agency out of the programs because of its own complaints about USAID’s handling of the Cuba programs and the imprisonment of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross in Havana, the sources added.
Secretary of State John Kerry tried to cut spending on the programs when he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, arguing they are useless and unnecessarily risky. Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence for delivering communications equipment to Cuban Jews.
In a stunning security lapse, USAID last year used an unencrypted line to send U.S. diplomats in Havana documents on proposals for assisting Cuban dissidents. Cuban laws make it illegal to cooperate with U.S. democracy programs.
The omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2014 says USAID is to get none of the $17.5 million set aside for Cuba programs. NED is to get no less than $7.5 million and DRL and WHA are to get no more than $10 million, it adds.
The sum is $2.5 million less than the previous fiscal year’s appropriation, wrote Tracey Eaton, a Florida journalist who was the first to report on the agency’s exclusion on his website, Along the Malecon.
Four USAID grants totaling $13.1 million over three years will expire on Sept. 31. They went to the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, the Pan-American Development Foundation, International Relief and Development, and the National Democratic Institute.
Another three programs totaling $10.3 million have grants that will run until Sept. 31, 2015. They are run by the New American Foundation, International Republican Institute, and Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia, a Miami non-profit run by exiles.
Diaz-Balart said he hopes USAID can improve its record on Cuba and perhaps get new money for the next fiscal year.
The Cuba programs have long been surrounded by complaints of waste and political cronyism, but a report last year by the GAO gave USAID a good grade but noted the State Department must improve the handling of its own programs.
DRL is charged with promoting rights around the globe, including religious freedom and labor rights. WHA handles relations with South and Central America and the Caribbean. NED, which already receives funds for Cuba programs, is a non-partisan non-profit founded in 1983 to assist democratic institutions abroad, including political parties, unions, and independent news media.