|Street scene in Havana|
GAO has investigated the Cuba programs before. See:
- "Continued Efforts Needed to Strengthen USAID's Oversight of U.S. Democracy Assistance for Cuba," November 2008, and
- "U.S. Democracy Assistance for Cuba Needs Better Management and Oversight," November 2006.
Before the report's release, two sources in Washington had told me that some Republican lawmakers were so upset with USAID's handling of democracy programs in 2012 that they proposed turning over all the Cuba programs to the National Endowment for Democracy, or NED.
In May 2012, the House Committee on Appropriations approved a bill that would have done just that. House Resolution 5857 would have also increased the budget for democracy programs from $15 million to $20 million.
The bill read:
Cuba.—The Committee recommendation includes $20,000,000 for Cuba, which is the same as the fiscal year 2012 enacted level and $5,000,000 above the request.
The Committee directs that these funds shall be provided directly to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) for programs to promote democracy and strengthen civil society in Cuba as authorized by section 109(a) of the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996 and section 1705 of the Cuban Democracy Act (CDA) of 1992.
The Committee expects NED to work with the core institutes and other grantees that have extensive, continuous, and current experience in Cuba. Assistance provided for Cuba under this heading shall not be used for business promotion, economic reform, social development, or other purposes not expressly authorized by section 109(a) of the LIBERTAD Act.The bill never made it out of the Appropriations Committee, but gave some insight into the political undercurrents swirling around the democracy programs.
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, sponsored the resolution. She is chair of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee. Others on the committee include:
- Mario Diaz-Balart, R-FL
- Frank Wolf, R-VA
- Charles Dent, R-PA
- Jack Kingston, R-GA
- Ander Crenshaw, R-FL
- Kevin Yoder, R-KS
Granger provides a connection to NED. She is a member of the organization's Congressional Advisory Committee, according to her biography.
NED is a non-partisan organization and did not solicit $20 million in Cuba programs, a knowledgeable source said.
Two groups associated with the NED already manage USAID grants worth $5.3 million (See Our Work):
- The International Republican Institute received a $3 million three-year grant in September 2012.
- The National Democratic Institute was awarded a $2.3 million three-year grant in September 2011.
Another group to receive funds in 2011 was the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, a Miami non-profit group that is linked to the Cuban American National Foundation, or CANF.
Diaz-Balart complained about that, calling it political favoritism. He said in a statement to the Miami Herald:
It would be a disgrace if the Obama administration broke with tradition and used a penny of that critical funding to reward political cronies.A prominent Democrat, Joe Garcia, is supporter of Barack Obama and a former executive director of the CANF.
Hardliner Diaz-Balart defeated Garcia in a Florida congressional race in 2008. Four years later, Garcia ran for Congress again and beat one of Diaz-Balart's allies, Republican David Rivera.
Mark Lopes, USAID's Deputy Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean, told the Herald that politics had nothing to do with the selection of grant recipients.
He said a “technical evaluation committee” reviews applications and selects winners.
The criteria for competing for USAID funds is included in the grant application ... This is a technical process based on the merits of the proposals submitted. No political appointee had any role in the selection process.Lopes is a former aide to Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., an influential supporter of the democracy programs.
Lopes did not respond to
(Note to readers: A USAID press officer said my email must have gone into his spam folder because he did not get the message. I had written to Lopes before traveling to Washington, D.C., last week, saying, "I'd love to hear your insights on Cuba if you are available." The press officer said she didn't consider that a formal interview request, just an invitation to chat. So I asked her today if I could interview Lopes. No, she said, pointing out that I am not on Lopes' "Favorite Persons List." But, she said, perhaps he'll agree to talk sometime in the future).
CANF has been critical of USAID in the past. In 2008, the foundation studied the agency's democracy programs in Cuba and found that less than 17 percent of all USAID Cuba funds were used for direct, on-island assistance. Some 56 percent went to universities and other institutions to study post-Castro scenarios and other issues.
Much of the money was used to pay operating expenses, office costs and salaries. One organization, Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia, spent $6,054,079 from 1996 to 2005. Only 4 percent - or $251,077 - reached Cuba, the study said.
Grupo de Apoyo disputed those findings. Garcia had left the CANF by then. USAID has since said its priority is to ensure that as much the democracy aid as possible reaches Cuba.