Release democracy funding for CubaOUR OPINION: “Hold” by Sen. Kerry undermines worthwhile programs
At a time when Cuba’s masters are fighting desperately to avoid an economic and political collapse, Washington is caught up in an increasingly silly and pointless dispute over funds to promote civil society and democracy on the island. This nonsense could not come at a worse time.
Sen. John Kerry has put the brakes on funding previously approved by federal lawmakers without supplying clear reasons for his actions or his intent. This is both a significant departure from the usual script involving U.S. policy toward Cuba and a surprising — and disappointing — role for the senator from Massachusetts.
Cuba policy is a perennial target of controversy inside the beltway, with Democrats and Republicans offering competing visions of the best way to fulfill the U.S. interest in promoting freedom on the island. This time, however, it’s a leading Democrat against a Democratic administration. The situation is made even more bizarre because Mr. Kerry has rarely, if ever, evinced overriding interest in Cuba policy and can usually be counted on to act as a reliable ally of the Obama administration on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has put a “hold” on Cuba funds disbursed by USAID, the foreign-aid arm of the State Department, to block $20 million “to support human rights and civil society initiatives in Cuba.” These programs cover a wide range of activities. They include the provision of “food stuffs and over-the-counter medicines” to political prisoners and their families, and training for grassroots organizers and “democratic engagement at the community level.”
In the past, some federal funds for Cuba have been ill-used or misspent, and the Herald has long called for vigilance in these important democracy-building programs. They should not be exempt from accountability.
But in this case, funds to assist Cubans who dare to dissent are undergoing an unusual and unwarranted level of scrutiny. Neither Sen. Kerry nor members of his staff have produced a “smoking gun” or evidence of wrongdoing. They have demanded answers to intrusive questions, reportedly including the identity of individuals at the ground level in a totalitarian state — information that the administration guards jealously and sensibly because improper dissemination would jeopardize their safety.
That’s the hang-up, but it shouldn’t be. The principle behind these programs — employed throughout the world — is important and the programs themselves are worthwhile. Their aim is to promote civic engagement and rudimentary forms of participatory democracy. It’s easy to see why they frighten the dictatorship, which wants to keep Cubans on a tight leash. The existence of a robust civil society in Cuba would represent a threat to the regime.
If Sen. Kerry has doubts, they should be aired in an open committee hearing. Questions should be asked in public and answers supplied by the administration.
But holding up the expenditure at this stage undermines the entire process. A “hold” by an individual senator — a privilege that, as now, is frequently abused, whether it be for spending money or denying office to a worthy appointee — is a particularly unfair way to go about it.
Sen. Kerry owes it to fellow lawmakers to give a reason for his actions or lift the hold. Blocking approved funding this way is unacceptable. Supporters of programs to aid Cuba’s dissidents are frustrated. Meanwhile, in Havana, Cuba’s leaders are no doubt laughing.