Hold lifted on Cuba democracy funds

Campaign News | Wednesday, 23 July 2008

BY FRANCES ROBLES for the Miami Herald

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday lifted the hold he had placed on the U.S. Agency for International Development's $45 million Cuba democracy program, saying steps are being taken to address corruption and misspending.

The Miami Herald reported Monday that Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., had put a hold last month on U.S. AID's 2008 funding for its controversial Cuba democracy program.

The program is aimed at bringing democracy to Cuba, but critics have said the bulk of the money has gone to Miami exile organizations and universities.


Two of the program's 11 grant winners are under investigation for misspending funds, including the Center for a Free Cuba, where an employee, who last worked at the White House, allegedly embezzled more than $500,000.

A Miami organization, Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia (Group in Support of Democracy), had its funding cut off after one of its employees charged $11,000 in personal items to the grant, federal officials said.

U.S. AID ordered a top-down review of all the grants and promised to suspend any grants that show signs of misspending.

"Yesterday, I received assurances that U.S. AID and the State Department are seized with the gravity of the problems in these programs and that they are actively working to correct the problems," Berman said in a statement. He said he then decided to release the hold, ``except that funds will not be extended to those program participants that are under investigation."

The decision followed months of wrangling between the State Department agency and Berman's office, which had demanded answers to a series of questions before releasing the funds.

A Government Accountability Office report in 2006 criticized AID for not offering adequate oversight.

"Since then, the program has been expanded more than four-fold, raising congressional concern regarding the adequacy of accountability measures," Berman said.


The Center for a Free Cuba's executive director, Frank Calzon, stressed that the misused funds were recovered with interest, and said members of Congress who are against Cuba policy were manipulating the media in an effort to smear him.

"I think it's great that Congress lifted the hold on the funds," Calzon said. ``Unfortunately, previous news stories have not said that I recovered the money.

The center's funding is still suspended until his agency is fully audited, federal officials said.

AID spokesman Paul Koscak said the agency is ``certainly pleased. The main thing is that we will continue supporting Cuba grantees."

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