By William E. Gibson
Washington Bureau Chief
Posted June 23 2007
WASHINGTON -- House approval this week of a huge increase in funding for a controversial program to promote democracy in Cuba delivered a legislative victory for anti-Castro advocates from South Florida. But critics warn the money could be squandered on attempts to influence public opinion rather than used to help dissidents.
The House action, on a vote of 254 to 170, was the first test of strength on Cuba policy under the Democratic-run Congress, and the first round went to embargo hardliners.
After an intense debate, the House voted to increase the democracy program's funding five-fold to $45.7 million next fiscal year, which starts in October. The vote on an amendment to a spending bill strengthened the hand of President Bush and South Florida members of Congress who hope to build public and international pressure against the Cuban government while encouraging dissent within Cuba.
"We've shown our votes here will go up, not down," boasted Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, a sponsor of the amendment and congressional leader for the democracy program and for the U.S. embargo of Cuba. "We got 66 Democrats in addition to all but six Republicans. It shows that the efforts of others [to ease the embargo] will be no cakewalk."
Undaunted, some leaders in the House and Senate plan to push legislation that would ease restrictions on trade and travel to the island while scrutinizing spending on the pro-democracy program, much of which is filtered through South Florida groups.
House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, D- NY, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus unveiled legislation that would allow Americans to travel to Cuba and also eliminate requirements that farmers get paid in cash before shipping food to the island.
"This is an important first step toward modernizing our Cuba policy," said Baucus, D-Mont., regarding his legislation.
The Cuba democracy program and the embargo issues are separate, though related. Most of those who favor the embargo staunchly back the democracy program. Many of those who oppose the travel ban and embargo also question the effectiveness of the democracy program and how its money is spent.
After reviewing grants distributed by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development from 1996 to 2005, the U.S. Government Accountability Office last year cited lax controls and poor oversight of some of the $73 million provided to U.S. organizations to support Cuban dissidents. Some funding went for coloring books and literature, Godiva chocolates, cashmere sweaters and Nintendo Game Boys.
Defenders of the program said the vast bulk of the money has been properly spent.
"The program now is being improved," Diaz-Balart said. "And now it is ready to take on the added responsibility of the additional funding."
Morgan Ortagus, a spokeswoman for USAID, said on Friday the agency could not comment on pending legislation or specify how additional funds would be spent.
Critics say the program reaches few dissidents on the island and spends too much to try to influence opinion outside of Cuba.
"It's important to note that a lot of the money is not destined for Cuba. A lot has to do with projects outside Cuba," said Philip Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a research group based in northern Virginia, who has organized congressional visits to the island. "It funds research programs at U.S. universities. It funds organizations that try to change public opinion in Europe.
"If this appropriation sticks, it's going to be a five-fold increase in spending. Lord knows what they will do with that much money."
The Senate must still consider its own appropriations bill. The House vote, backed by the White House, will strengthen the program's chances of getting increased funding.
"No one wants to go on record opposing democracy in Cuba, which is how your opponent in the next election could portray your vote on this issue," said William LeoGrande, an expert on Cuba at American University in Washington. "But I wouldn't be surprised to see Congress come back in a year to see whether appropriate safeguards have been put in place."
William E. Gibson can be reached at email@example.com or 202-824-8256.