Senator Kerry Demands Accountability for USAID in Cuba

Photo courtesy of the White House

U.S.-Cuba policy is important to Senator Kerry and he wants us to get it right. That was the message he sent last Friday when he announced he is freezing funding for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Cuba democracy promotion programs until a complete review of the programs is completed

Kerry’s announcement came after USAID provided a spending plan (h/t Cuban Triangle) for the $20 million it recieved for Cuba democracy promotion programs in the FY2010 federal budget. For those readers who are not avid followers of the federal budget process, the U.S. Congress is currently wrangling over the FY2011 budget, in which, yes, the Administration requested another $20 million for USAID’s Cuba democracy promotion programs.   

If it sounds like Kerry is singing a familiar tune, it’s because this isn’t the first time he’s tried to call attention to this deeply flawed program that has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $150 million. Four months after American USAID contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba for his work on a USAID sub-contract, Kerry placed a hold on the dispersal of USAID Cuba democracy promotion funds to allow the State Department to conduct a review of the program.

As Kerry’s spokesman, Fred Jones said at the time, “We all want democratic change in Cuba,” Jones continued. “The question is whether American taxpayers are getting progress towards that goal.”

Unfortunately, it seems the most that came of that review was a modest attempt to broaden and de-politicize the program’s roster of recipients to include “marginalized communities” such as those living in rural areas, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as to promote grass-roots economic development. Expanding the program to encompass more traditional USAID priorities such as economic development was a good move, but it didn’t address the more fundamental concerns with the program- that it operates without the consent of the host government and under Cuban law, put Americans and Cubans involved with the program at risk.  

While Senator Kerry and USAID’s back and forth may seem like a kind of $20 million dollar tug-of-war, you have to hand it to Kerry for refusing to let this toxic piece of our Cuba policy continue on auto-pilot. Given the myriad of high-stake foreign policy challenges the Senator is personally involved in, AfPak, Israel-Palestine to name a few, he doesn’t strike me as a man that holds too many delusions about how to advance U.S. interests in unsavory political climates.  

And his leadership on this issue is important. As George Lakoff and Frank Lutz would probably tell you, it’s politically tough for a Member of Congress to challenge, or even question something termed “democracy promotion”. Add to this linguistic confusion the fear of angering one of the many influential pro-embargo Members of Congress, and you have a recipe for inaction and a Congress complacent to outsource “democracy promotion” to Miami and for-profit entities instead of embracing the organic and free solution of allowing the American people to travel to Cuba.

On this front, there was actually another interesting nugget in Kerry’s announcement, that he has already called for a General Accountability Office (GAO) investigation in to the “legal basis and effectiveness” of the democracy promotion programs. While a 2006 GAO report offered a well-detailed look at the waste and mismanagement that characterized the program, the GAO’s take on the legality of the program would be something new. As the 2006 GAO reported pointed out, the mark of President Bush’s regime change-advocating Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba is all over USAID’s efforts.  

The GAO said, “State and USAID officials said that the commission’s 2004 report provides the policy framework for their agencies’ respective grant programs…”

And just what was the flavor of the Commission’s 2004 report? The opening paragraph reads:

"As an essential part of America’s commitment to stand with the Cuban people against the tyranny of Fidel Castro’s regime, President George W. Bush mandated that the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba identify additional means by which the United States can help the Cuban people bring about an expeditious end to the Castro dictatorship." 

Given recent controversy over whether the U.S. is advocating regime change in Libya, it will be interesting to see what the GAO’s makes of U.S. democracy promotion in Cuba and just how much space there is between what the Commission laid out in 2004 and what we are doing now.

USAID FY2010 Cuba spending plan.pdf276.76 KB