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 human rights 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 Castro 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 mismanagement.
"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 Raul Castro.
In blocking the money in April, Kerry said he hoped the Cuban people "achieve greater freedom 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 Alan Gross, who was working on a USAID-funded democracy-building program when he was arrested 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 Havana-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 dissident who died after an 83-day hunger strike. Orlando Zapata Tamayo was 42 when he died on Feb. 23, 2010. He had been in prison 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 exile 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 report.