A senior Democratic senator and the State Department have resolved their dispute over U.S. aid to a program that promotes democracy in communist Cuba, clearing the way for the Obama administration to spend $20 million in assistance.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who had placed a hold on the money, said Tuesday that the department provided answers about oversight of the program and he had stopped blocking the funds. Established in 1996, the program promotes human rights and basic freedoms in the Castro-led nation, but it has come under question amid reports of grantees misusing money and little U.S. scrutiny.
"The United States has a strong interest in helping the Cuban people improve their lives and protect their rights. We also have a responsibility to know how U.S. taxpayer dollars are used and whether programs are effective," Leahy said in a statement. "For too long this program has been carried out in ways that have been neither transparent nor accountable, and with no way to measure results. That needs to change, and getting answers about the way these funds are spent is a constructive first step."
Leahy, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on State Department and Foreign Operations, has not been the only lawmaker to challenge the program. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., 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.
Transparency had been an issue in the standoff because the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development had not provided information on the program's contracts requested by the Foreign Relations Committee, which has oversight authority over the agencies.
But last week, Kerry said he was lifting the hold after receiving assurances from the State Department about the program's effectiveness.
The program and the dispute had divided congressional Democrats as well as Cuban-Americans, and pitted Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., against Kerry and Leahy.
The issue also stirred the political implications for President Barack Obama and Democrats facing re-election next year while reviving the debate over human rights in Cuba after more than a half-century of control by Fidel and Raul Castro.
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.