BY OSCAR CORRAL | Miami Herald
Chief of Cuba programs to go work for McCain
The head of the U.S. government’s programs to promote democracy in Cuba and Latin America announced he was leaving to help guide Sen. John McCain’s tentative run for president.
Adolfo Franco, who oversees the U.S. government’s ambitious project to promote democracy in Cuba, will be leaving his post to serve as a foreign policy advisor for Sen. John McCain, who is considering a presidential run.
The announcement by Franco, assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean for the U.S. Agency for International Development, comes two months after a critical audit of the Cuba program by the congressional Government Accountability Office; a Miami Herald series also outlined problems with the program’s oversight and effectiveness.
But the Democratic congressional leader who sought the GAO audit said Franco should not be blamed, saying Franco inherited a flawed program.
‘‘The whole Cuba democracy promotion program, it cries out to be reviewed in a very transparent way with rigorous oversight,’’ said Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass. ``Let’s have a full hearing. Let’s air it out.’‘
Delahunt and Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., both opponents of U.S. sanctions on Cuba, requested the GAO audit.
In response to e-mailed questions, Franco said he was not pressured to resign and that USAID had done ``phenomenal work to further the dissident human rights movement in Cuba.’‘
He said after five years on the job it was time to move on. ``I believe I am among the longest serving senior political appointees in the Bush administration serving in the same position.’‘
Franco said he will stay until President Bush taps a successor and the Senate approves the confirmation.
John Weaver, senior strategist for McCain’s exploratory campaign, called Straight Talk America, hailed Franco, a Cuban American, as ‘‘an outstanding public servant’’ who ``understands the issues related to our hemisphere as well as anyone.’‘
McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam who later pushed for U.S. trade with that country, has visited Cuban exile leaders in Miami several times, trying to shore up support in Florida.
The Arizona Republican has worked hard to dispel any questions about his stand on Cuba. In August, after Fidel Castro transferred power to his brother Ra�l, McCain told a crowd in Miami: ``My friends, let’s have a dialogue with Ra�l Castro the day after we have a fair election and Cuba is free.’‘
McCain, who lost his bid for the presidency in 2000, told The Miami Herald during that campaign that he was open to negotiations with Cuba if Castro’s government took certain steps, such as setting free political prisoners and allowing ``freedom for business people in Cuba.’‘
Frank Calzon, who heads the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba, one of the largest USAID recipients, said Franco has done an excellent job administering the program.
‘‘Franco executed successfully the president’s Cuba policy,’’ said Calzon, whose center has spent more than $5 million on pro-democracy efforts for Cuba since 1998.
Calzon cited the federal audit, which, he noted, closely examined 10 of USAID’s 34 grantees. ``They found substantial problems in only three grants. That sounds like a success, not a failure.’‘
Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American studies, which is partially funded by USAID, said there are discussions between the U.S. State Department and USAID over which agency will control USAID democracy-funding.
‘‘Those issues need to be worked out to some extent,’’ Gomez said. ``Adolfo has been very supportive of our program, and has given us very good advice over the years.’‘
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen did not return phone calls for comment. A spokeswoman for Rep. Lincoln D�az-Balart said he was traveling and not available for comment. They are strong supporters of the USAID Cuba programs and have praised Franco’s leadership.
For some exiles, USAID’s democracy program has been a disappointment.
‘‘The majority of the money stays in the United States and the dissidents don’t receive it,’’ said exile activist Ram�n Sa�l S�nchez, who has never received funding from USAID. ``The effectiveness that a program like that could have remains clouded over political issues.’‘
In November, a GAO report on the Cuba democracy program found that 95 percent of the $65 million spent by USAID since 1996 were allotted ‘‘in response to unsolicited proposals,’’ meaning there were no competitive bids.
GAO found the program spent millions of dollars without proper oversight, leading to questionable purchases.
The Miami Herald also found that millions of dollars stayed in Miami and Washington—instead of reaching the political opposition on the communist island.
GAO auditors referred their findings to the Inspector General’s office to probe deeper into the program.
Delahunt said Congress plans to hold hearings in March on USAID’s Cuba program and the operations of Radio and TV Mart�.