Two Florida lawmakers protested USAID’s plans to cut its budget for democracy programs in Cuba from $20 million to $15 million.
Sen. Marco Rubio on Wednesday called it “a terrible precedent, a terrible idea” and urged the agency to reconsider.
The planned reduction is “way out of proportion…for a program of this small scale,” Rubio told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 24.
USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah defended the cuts, saying:
…on Cuba, again, the goals there are support for civil society and democracy with some small humanitarian efforts. And we have worked closely with our partners. We believe the administration’s budget of $15 million reflects an appropriate investment that they have the capacity to implement.
We recognize and take some faith in the fact that GAO reviewed our approach to implementing this program and very strongly commented on the effective reforms we’ve put in place, to have a clear and compelling implementation strategy for this effort.
Shah says USAID’s partners “have the capacity to implement” $15 million in programs. One Capitol Hill source who is knowledgeable about USAID’s programs told me in 2011 that USAID sometimes has trouble spending all the money it is given for Cuba programs. He said:
If you’re sitting at AID at a desk and someone hands you $20 million and says, ‘All right, go spend it on Cuba and none of it can touch the government’ — $20 million in a year is a lot of money to spend that way.
Devising ways to spend the money became tougher after Cuban authorities arrested American development worker Alan Gross in December 2009. After his arrest, USAID stopped funding programs aimed at smuggling high-tech communications gear into Cuba, the source said, but that created a new problem. He said:
Now you’ve got to figure out—where do we spend all that money that we used to spend on technology? In some ways this is a shoveling-the-money-out-the-door operation.
Even when USAID spent only $9 million per year on Cuba programs, it was “very difficult” to find productive ways to spend the money, the source said.
The source it was especially difficult for USAID in 2008 when it suddenly had to spend some $45 million Cuba programs. He said:
According to everyone at the State Department, that was the year that the programs just…broke down completely. It’s very difficult to spent that much money, so how do you spend it? You basically give it to people in the United States and say, ‘OK, try to go do some good with it.’
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said more money is needed for democracy activists, not less. During an April 25 budget hearing, she told Shah:
I continue to be concerned over the administration’s attempts to cut much needed democracy programs to the Cuban people. Forty pro-democracy activists remain on hunger strikes in Cuba to call attention to the dozens of Cubans who are being detained by Castro’s state security forces. These brave heros are risking their lives yet we are cutting their support, which is not prudent, especially at a time when the crackdown by Castro’s thugs is actually on the rise on the island.
Rubio blamed Secretary of State John Kerry for the $5 million cut. He did not mention Kerry by name, but recalled that Kerry, as senator and chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, once froze funding for democracy programs in Cuba.
Rubio said Kerry and other lawmakers “held up this program with endless questions about it.”
Kerry now oversees both the State Department and USAID and is in a position to adjust the budget for the democracy programs. Said Rubio:
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this was reduced. I just hope that this will be reversed. I think it’s a terrible precedent. It’s a terrible idea.
Critics of U.S. policy toward Cuba hope Kerry is taking a new approach toward Cuba. Arturo Lopez-Levy, a lecturer at the University of Denver, said Kerry’s experiences in “Vietnam, where visceral ideological attitudes prevailed over rational analysis, prompted the future senator to advocate for a more realistic course for U.S. policy.” Lopez-Levy wrote:
Once public opinion turned against the war in Vietnam, the political leadership in the U.S. found it had no choice but to follow suit. Kerry is better positioned than anyone to be a leader and see that point of departure when it comes to U.S. policy and Cuba.
Kerry has spoken out against U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba. In 2009, he wrote:
For 47 years, our embargo in the name of democracy has produced no democracy at all. Too often, our rhetoric and policies have actually furnished the Castro regime with an all-purpose excuse to draw attention away from its many shortcomings.
As Lopez-Levy sees it, lifting sanctions – including the ban on unrestricted travel to the island – would be “a catalyst for change” in Cuba.
Supporters of sanctions say the embargo must remain in place to force the Cuban government to make democratic reforms.