By Pablo Bachelet | Miami Herald
Two congressmen who oppose sanctions on Cuba said Wednesday they will push for an investigation of U.S. programs to promote democracy on the island after a report uncovered poor oversight and indications of wastefulness.
“The conclusions are disturbing, to say the least,” Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., said of a report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
The GAO report said more than 95 percent of U.S. Agency for International Development programs for Cuba were handed out without any competitive bids and were then subject to only perfunctory reviews. It cites questionable purchases of items like cashmere sweaters and crab meat for dissidents on the island.
Delahunt is set to become chairman of the Oversight and Investigations panel of the House Committee on International Relations when the Democratic-controlled Congress reconvenes early next year.
He also is co-chair with Arizona Republican Rep. Jeffrey Flake of the Cuba Working Group, a bipartisan caucus that opposes many U.S. sanctions against Cuba. The two lawmakers requested the GAO study.
Delahunt recognized that it was a “challenge” getting democracy promotion material to Cuba given the communist dictatorship that operates there.
“But our concern is the program’s efficacy,” he said, “in terms of what is occurring here in the United states, both in Washington and in Miami.”
Delahunt told a news conference Wednesday that he expected his subcommittee will convene hearings as soon as January and hoped to get testimonies from U.S. government officials as well as grant recipients.
The U.S. government has spent more than $73 million on promoting democracy in Cuba since 1996, with the bulk of those funds being channeled through USAID.
Flake said the problems highlighted by the GAO report show that the programs do little to advance democracy in Cuba.
“I simply don’t know how we can continue with the current individuals who are running the programs and the current structure after this report,” Flake said. “Maybe this also calls for a change in policy.”
Defenders of the Cuba democracy programs say the report may actually help improve the initiatives.
“From what I understand, the report does not question our goal and overall policy to bring freedom and democracy to Cuba,” said Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “In fact, based on what I know of the report, I would argue it seeks to reinforce our efforts by providing recommendations on how to improve the process.”
Flake noted that the government is spending up to $20 per pound to send products such as books and shortwave radios to the island. Allowing unrestricted travel to the island would make it much cheaper to send the materials, he added.
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