A private congressional dispute over democracy programs in Cuba went public Friday, with a House committee chairwoman accusing her Senate counterpart of failing to understand what she calls "the brutal nature of the Havana tyranny."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., for blocking $20 million in U.S. money slated for the programs this year and for suggesting that the programs led to the imprisonment of Alan Gross, an American contractor jailed in Cuba.
"U.S. democracy promotion programs in Cuba advance our foreign policy goals of helping to bring freedom to the Cuban people and to facilitate a transition to democracy," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. "Senator Kerry has suggested that U.S. democracy promotion programs provoked the Cuban regime into wrongfully imprisoning a U.S. citizen who was helping the Cuban people overcome the dictatorship's censorship. I believe this demonstrates a lack of understanding of the brutal nature of the Havana tyranny. It is my hope that Senator Kerry will reconsider his position."
The Florida Republican, who was born in Havana, also sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praising the programs as critical and arguing that the struggle of the Cuban people is no less deserving that the U.S. support for activists in the Middle East and North Africa.
Kerry's office had no immediate response to Ros-Lehtinen.
Gross was working on a USAID-funded democracy-building program when he was arrested in December 2009. In March, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison after being convicted of bringing communications equipment into Cuba illegally. His lawyer is appealing.
Cuba considers the millions of dollars spent on USAID-funded projects to be aimed at toppling the government, and it has called Gross a spy. U.S. officials say relations with Havana cannot improve while he remains in jail.
Gross' daughter and elderly mother both have cancer, and State Department officials have expressed hope that Cuba might release him on humanitarian grounds.
Associated Press writer Desmond O. Butler contributed to this report.