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Cuba aid program poorly managed, report says

From the Chicago Tribune

A $74-million program to encourage democracy in Cuba was beset with questionable spending that included purchases of computer gaming equipment, Godiva chocolates and cashmere sweaters, according to a report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office.

The money was supposed to provide humanitarian assistance funneled from U.S. aid groups to Cuban dissidents. Although the program did provide some benefits, it also had high overhead and was badly coordinated between the State Department and the Agency for International Development, the report says.

The GAO also criticized USAID for awarding about 95% of the grants noncompetitively.

The agency sent its findings on at least three grant recipients, who received a total of $4.7 million, to the USAID inspector general for further investigation.

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A leading congressional critic of Bush administration policy toward Cuba said he would hold hearings next year on the findings. “This program is a poorly administered part of a badly flawed policy,” said Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.).

GAO investigators found that one U.S.-funded group spent taxpayer funds on a “gas chain saw, computer gaming equipment (including Nintendo Game Boys and Sony PlayStations) and software, a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat and Godiva chocolates.”

Because of Cuba’s opposition, USAID has no presence on the island and channels taxpayer money primarily through groups based in South Florida.

There, food, clothing, medicine, shortwave radios, digital cameras and other items are stockpiled, packed into duffel bags and carried by volunteers or professional smugglers into Cuba for distribution.

The money also has been used to train Cuba’s independent journalists and bankroll websites and magazines critical of Fidel Castro’s government.

Frank Hernandez of Support Group to Democracy, a Florida nonprofit that has received $11 million in USAID funds since 2000, said, “In spite of the sporadic problems, the fact remains that a very large amount of humanitarian aid has arrived in the proper hands.”


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