No USAID funds for Cuba in Trump budget proposal

The Miami Herald

USAID programs in Cuba, which have been highly controversial in recent years, aren’t funded under the Trump administration’s proposed State Department budget for Fiscal Year 2018.

“As we work to streamline efforts to ensure efficiency and effectiveness of U.S. taxpayer dollars, we acknowledge that we have to prioritize and make some tough choices,” said a USAID spokesperson. “Focusing our efforts will allow us to advance our most important policy goals of protecting America and creating American jobs.”

There are no economic support funds for Cuba in the State Department’s 2018 budget proposal, which was released Tuesday. Such funding, which is appropriated by Congress and provided to USAID by the State Department, reached $20 million in fiscal year 2016.

The Trump administration proposed slashing the overall State Department and USAID budget by around 30 percent to $37.6 billion. In his letter to Congress justifying the budget proposal, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the budget addresses “the importance of defending our national security interests” but also acknowledges that “U.S. diplomacy engagement and aid programs must be more efficient and more effective.”

The proposed budget cuts are expected to face a rough slog through Congress.

Assistance to Cuba is governed by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act and the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which among other things, authorizes donations of food to non-governmental organizations or individuals as well as other assistance to individuals and organizations to promote nonviolent, democratic change in Cuba.

Cuba has always said the USAID programs aren’t welcome.

Cuba programs that USAID advertised last year included $6 million in grants offered over a three-year period to organizations to “provide humanitarian assistance to political prisoners and their families, and politically marginalized individuals and groups in Cuba,” and a $754,000 program to bring Cuban young people to the United States for internships.

Among USAID programs for Cuba that have caught flak in recent years were a failed effort to co-opt the Cuban hip-hop scene to spark a youth movement that would speak out against the government, a program to create a secret Twitter-like network called ZunZuneo and an event billed as an HIV prevention workshop that brought young Latin Americans posing as tourists to Cuba with a mission of scouting for “potential social-change actors.”

The Associated Press, which first disclosed these projects in 2014, said the goal of ZunZuneo was first to create a program for Cubans to speak freely among themselves and then funnel political content that could create political unrest.

USAID said ZunZuneo’s goal was to connect Cubans so eventually they could engage on topics of their choice and that only tech news, sports scores and trivia were sent out on ZunZuneo. But a report by the Office of Inspector General found some early messages, which mocked Cuban leaders, contained political satire.

ZunZuneo was starting up just as USAID subcontractor Alan Gross was arrested in Havana in December 2009 for distributing satellite equipment in Cuba to link with the internet. Gross was sentenced to 15 years by a Cuban court that ruled his intent was to undermine the government, but he was released after serving five years on Dec. 17, 2014. It was the day the United States and Cuba announced a rapprochement after more than a half century of hostilities.

There are few direct references to Cuba in the fiscal 2018 budget proposal.

But under Migration and Refugee Assistance programs in the Western Hemisphere, which are budgeted for $51.3 million, is this reference: “In Cuba, resources enable the State Department to support the Migrant Operations Center at Naval Station Guantánamo Bay. Under 306 Executive Order 13276, the State Department is responsible for the care of migrants interdicted at sea, determined to be in need of protection, while they await third country resettlement.”

Amid all the cutting, the budget proposes a $40,00 increase to $2.41 million for the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission (FCSC). This quasi-judicial agency within the Department of Justice adjudicates claims of U.S. nationals against foreign governments. The proposal says the agency’s budget would go for the continued evaluation of claims, to maintain the decisions and records of past claims programs and to modernize such records by creating and updating databases.

While the FCSC deals with outstanding claims around the world, it is the repository of 5,913 certified claims against Cuba valued at more than $1.9 billion. In today’s dollars with interest added, those claims for sugar mills, ranches, utilities, corporate holdings and personal property would be worth around $8 billion.

However, Cuba claims the United States owes it billions in reparations for economic damages caused by the U.S. embargo and for human damages for the Bay of Pigs invasion, the bombing of a Cubana airliner and other deadly U.S.-supported incursions on Cuban soil.

The two sides met to discuss the claims during the Obama administration but at this point they have said little more than they hope their claims can be resolved in a “mutually satisfactory manner.”

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