USAID in Cuba- Why Keep Funding Failure?

Photo courtesy of Flickr/USAID_IMAGES

An American contractor could spend 15 years in a Cuban prison because of work he undertook at the behest of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). If this tragic episode does not fundamentally transform the nature of U.S. “democracy promotion” efforts in Cuba, I shudder to think what it may take.

The saga that Alan Gross and his family have been living for the past 15 months was an incredibly unfortunate accident waiting to happen. USAID knows its back door tactics place American and Cuban participants in direct violation of Cuban law. In dealing with Cuba, a country that views these programs as part of a larger strategy of regime change (with good reason), and operates one of the most formidable intelligence services in the world, it is no wonder, however regrettable, that Havana decided to make an example out of Alan Gross.

And then add to this the program’s history of fraud and mismanagement unearthed on several occasions by U.S. government audits. In 2006, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that nearly all the $74 million dollars spent on democracy efforts in Cuba were distributed without competitive bidding or oversight. In one of the more egregious incidents uncovered by the GAO, a Miami-based group was found to have,

“used government money to purchase "a gas chainsaw, computer gaming equipment and software (including Nintendo Game Boys and Sony PlayStations), a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat, and Godiva chocolates."

A 2007 investigation by the USAID’s Office of the Inspector General found similar abuses, and a year later, in a plot twist that could have been lifted from a Mexican telenovela, White House aide Felipe Sixto was charged with embezzling USAID funds during his tenure as Chief of Staff at the Center for a Free Cuba, a Miami-based USAID grantee. Sixto was eventually found guilty of bilking nearly $600,000 dollars and was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

Luckily, the totality of these abuses has not been lost on key players in the U.S. Congress. Both Senator John Kerry and Rep. Howard Berman (current and former heads of the Senate and House Committees that have jurisdiction over the program) have used their leadership positions to investigate these troubling reports and “hold” the distribution of USAID Cuba funds in order to compel USAID to provide more complete accounting of how the money is spent.

Unfortunately the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue is complacent with keeping the program on autopilot. USAID contractors were authorized to resume traveling to Cuba in early 2010, just four months after Alan Gross had been detained. In soliciting a new round of proposals for work in Cuba in August 2010, USAID eschewed responsibility for any harm that could be incurred by individuals going to Cuba to do the same type of work Gross was arrested for eight months earlier, saying,

“Given the nature of the Cuban regime and the political sensitivity of the USAID Program, USAID cannot be held responsible for any injury or inconvenience suffered by individuals traveling to the island under USAID grant funding.”

The Obama Administration’s FY2012 request of $20 million for USAID’s Cuba democracy assistance programming is a continuation of its FY2009, 2010 and 2011 requests. Instead of committing to re-structure USAID’s Cuba democracy promotion efforts to ensure they are effective without compromising the interests of both the Cuban and American people, the White House is asking Congress and U.S. taxpayers to keep funding failure.

For more on the U.S.-Cuba money trail, visit Cuba Money Project, an exciting new venture from former Dallas Morning News bureau chief in Havana, Tracey Eaton.