Leahy lifts hold on democracy funds for Cuba

Miami Herald:

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont on Tuesday lifted the final hold on the last part of a $20 million allocation for Cuba democracy programs, ending a bitter three-month fight over the programs’ effectiveness.

The funds are designed to help more than a dozen types of non-government activities, from youth groups to training on computers, communications and private enterprise and support for the communist-ruled country’s lesbian and gay community.

Leahy, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees State Department spending, announced that he freed the final $14 million of the $20 million package after the Department and its Agency for International Development answered his questions about human rights and civil society initiatives in Cuba.

But his statement made it clear he remains concerned about the programs, repeatedly criticized since their start in 1996 as wasteful and inefficient and managing only to provoke Havana into cracking down on dissidents who receive the U.S. assistance.

“The United States has a strong interest in helping the Cuban people improve their lives and protect their rights,” the statement said.  “We also have a responsibility to know how U.S. taxpayer dollars are used and whether programs are effective.”

“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,” he added.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations committee, put a “hold” on the full $20 million April 1 as his committee challenged the usefulness and transparency of the programs. Leahy added his own hold shortly afterward.

Kerry lifted his hold last week, after winning a promise by State and USAID officials that they would send his committee a detailed report on questions such as the programs’ effectiveness and how many Cubans they benefit.

Leahy let it be known on the same day that he had no issues with $6 million of the $20 million but needed more information on the rest.

The two senators expressed private concerns last week that freeing the funds might anger Cuban authorities amid speculation that they could release Alan P. Gross, a USAID subcontractor serving a 15-year prison sentence in Havana.

The 62-year-old development specialist from Potomac, Md., was arrested in 2009 for delivering a satellite telephone to Cuba’s tiny Jewish community so that it could access the Internet independently of Cuban government controls.

Cuba’s highest court heard his appeal last month, and U.S. officials have repeatedly expressed the hope that he would be released soon on humanitarian grounds because his wife, daughter and mother all face health problems

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