Friday, July 25, 2008

US aid to Cuba unfrozen, State Dep. pledges reform

US aid to Cuba unfrozen, State Dep. pledges reform
Posted on Tue, Jul. 22, 2008
AP Hispanic Affairs Writer

House lawmakers agreed to unfreeze $45 million in assistance to Cuba
after the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International
Development promised to immediately work to improve the program, the
head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee announced Tuesday.

Last month, committee chairman U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman, D-Calif., put
a hold on the money in the wake of reports of fraud by two groups
receiving some of the largest federal grants in the program. Berman
lifted the freeze Monday, but only after the State Department's and U.S.
Agency for International Development agreed to an extensive review of
each of the grants, including an independent audit of the program.

The funding freeze was partly in response to a $500,000 embezzlement at
one of the groups, the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba, federal
officials said. The Miami Herald first reported the freeze Tuesday.

"In response to our Committee's concerns, USAID has announced an
immediate review and an expanded audit of all Cuba democracy program
participants, and I applaud this expanded oversight," Berman said in a

Berman said additional assurances Monday by the State Department that it
understood "the gravity of the problems in these programs" and was
working to correct them convinced him to release the funding "except
that funds will not be extended to those program participants that are
under investigation."

U.S. AID recently suspended the second organization, Grupo de Apoyo a la
Democracia (Support Group for Democracy), according to a July 18 memo
from U.S. AID Deputy Assistant Administrator Stephen Driesler to
Congressional staff members.

The review found an employee at the Miami-based exile group spent
thousands of dollars in grant money on personal items, according to a
memo sent by U.S. AID official Stephen Driesler on Friday to various
members of Congress. About $11,000 was reimbursed, but the amount
missing could be higher, according to Driesler.

A message left by The Associated Press late Tuesday afternoon for Frank
Trujillo, head of Support Group for Democracy, was not immediately returned.

Congress' investigative arm issued a report in 2006 critical of some of
the aid organizations, and AID had planned to shift much of its funding
to overseas groups that support Cuban dissidents from the traditional
Miami-based aid organizations and academic institutions.

In June, Berman sent a letter to USAID administrator Henrietta Fore
expressing concern that the suspended grant to the Center for a Free
Cuba was about to be reinstated, despite lingering questions about what
the stolen money was used for, and how the remaining grant money would
be spent for if unfrozen.

Executive director Frank Calzon said Tuesday that the center was
unfairly targeted. He emphasized that the center had discovered the
theft and recouped the money, as well as reported incident to the

"No one has found anything wrong with the Center for a Free Cuba, except
the Center for a Free Cuba," he said.

He said he Cuba programs faced extra scrutiny because some lawmakers
like Berman oppose the U.S. government's policy toward Cuba, including
its decades-long embargo of the communist Island.

"It's easier to go after a program if you disagree with the policy," he

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