Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lawmaker: Foes of USAID have "political agenda"

(WASHINGTON) – U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman of the Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, made the following statement during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing titled: “U.S. Foreign Assistance in FY 2015: What Are the Priorities, How Effective?” Statement by Ros-Lehtinen:

“Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Thank you Dr. Shah. I would like to give you an opportunity to clarify some press reports about the Cuban twitter program. First, was the program covert and top secret? Second, does USAID implement similar programs aimed at increasing the free flow of information throughout the world in closed societies? Third, will USAID remain committed to reaching out to people suffering under closed societies and dictatorships?

Thank you Dr. Shah. So contrary to what the media have reported, the democracy programs for Cuba are transparent, they are open. The Cuba democracy program with its $20 million dollars price tag, in fact, is one of the most scrutinized programs in our foreign aid portfolio. The real question here is why does the press and some in our Congressional family demonize these programs?

The Freedom House has a report called ‘Freedom on the Net.’ And this report lists Cuba as the world's second worst violator on Internet freedom, only Iran is worse. Thus, Cuba is worse than countries like Syria, Bahrain, Burma, Belarus, where no one in Congress seems to have a problem promoting Internet freedom in those countries.

So why not Cuba?

Some may have a political agenda geared toward supporting the Castro dictatorship - instead of supporting the people of Cuba – and wish to put an end to these successful programs.

Many of us on this Committee have spent a lot of time and energy supporting human rights in Russia, Vietnam, Egypt, Tunisia, Ukraine, Iran, and Syria.

So why not Cuba?

Why does our foreign policy agenda discriminate against the freedom seeking people in the Western Hemisphere? As you know Dr Shah, and I want to congratulate you for being so sensitive on this, the Cuban people have been suffering under a ruthless dictator for more than 50 years. Not because of U.S. policy, but because the Castro brothers continue to harass, to imprison, to torture, and to kill the opposition.

I’m a political refugee because my family emigrated to the United States when I was 8 years old, we were seeking democracy. I remember driving through Havana and my father telling me to duck down because gun shots were being fired all around us. And my dear friend Albio Sires was 11 years old when his family came here from Cuba and he can also share some of these heartbreaking stories. But these tragedies continue today, in the daily lives of the people of Cuba.

One pro-democracy leader is Jorge Luis García Pérez, known by his nickname Antúnez. He was in a Castro jail for 17 years and now that he’s been freed to a bigger jail – Cuba – he continues to fight for democracy and the respect for human rights. In fact, just two months ago, Antúnez risked his life and went on a hunger strike with no food and no liquids. Why? All for the sake of freedom.

Berta Soler, another human rights advocate, she’s a leader of an organization called the Ladies in White - Las Damas de Blanco. These brave women are comprised of the moms, wives, sisters, friends, and relatives of political prisoners and they march every Sunday, in peace, to mass, wearing all white, calling for freedom. They march in peace, Mr. Chairman, as you know, with a gladiolus in their hand, you’ve talked about them. And these women are met with violence, beatings and imprisonment. These pro-democracy advocates are the faces of the people that you, under your leadership and the USAID, have been trying to support with these programs. Thank you for that Dr. Shah. And U.S. citizen Alan Gross is on his fifth year of being unjustly incarcerated in Cuba and has begun a hunger strike.

According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there were over a thousand arbitrary and politically motivated arrests in Cuba just two months ago in February.

Does this sound like a paradise? If this was happening in any other country in the world the U.S. would be engaged, so why should Cuba be an exception?

There is no independent press in Cuba. There is complete control over the Cuban airwaves and programming on television and the press to promote the political propaganda spewed by this dictatorship. That is why our State Department and that’s why you Dr. Shah with USAID democracy programs in Cuba are so important to offer the other side of the story. The side that promotes American values, God-given values like freedom, justice and liberty.

I recognize that some in Congress do not think that Cuba is of national significance but they are wrong and this issue goes well beyond Cuba. This issue that we are debating, Mr. Chairman, is whether or not USAID should be taking steps to promote human rights, the rule of law, and democratic governance throughout the world, and I say “YES.” Thank you Dr. Shah, thank you USAID. This is the cornerstone of our foreign policy to promote democratic ideals.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”

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