“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,” a USAID spokesperson said, The Miami Herald reports. “Focusing our efforts will allow us to advance our most important policy goals of protecting America and creating American jobs.”
The Trump administration plans to slash the overall State Department and USAID budget by 33 percent from $38 billion to $25.6 billion. This will eliminate climate-change prevention programs, reduce funding for development banks, reduce funding for U.N. peacekeeping, and eliminate most cultural-exchange programs.
The cuts are necessary to pay for an increase in defense spending and a down payment on the border wall, among other things. The State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Agriculture Department got the biggest cuts. In a letter to Congress justifying the budget proposal, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote that U.S. aid programs “must be more efficient and more effective.”
Funding for USAID programs in Cuba reportedly reached $20 million in 2016, even though the island’s government has maintained that the agency’s programs are not welcome.
Programs offering assistance to Cuba are governed by the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which authorizes charitable donations of food to NGOs or individuals, and assistance to organizations and persons promoting nonviolent, democratic change on the island.
Among the programs funded by USAID in Cuba last year was $6 million in grants to organizations that provide humanitarian aid to political prisoners and politically marginalized groups or individuals on the island.
Some of the programs funded by the agency have caused controversy. The Associated Press reported in 2014 that USAID purportedly funded the creation of a secret Twitter-like network called ZunZuneo to allow Cubans to speak freely and potentially cause political unrest.
USAID said the network’s goal was to connect citizens and encourage them to speak about topics of their choice, and that only trivia and sports scores were sent over the network. But a report by the Office of Inspector General revealed that some of the first messages sent over the network contained political satire and mocked government officials.
Other controversial programs include an attempt to co-opt the Cuban hip-hop scene to start a movement that would speak out against the government, and a HIV prevention workshop that brought in agents looking for potential “social-change actors.”
ZunZuneo was launched at the same time when USAID subcontractor Alan Gross was arrested in 2009. Gross was arrested for allegedly distributing satellite equipment on the island to connect to the internet. A Cuban court ruled that his intent was to undermine the government and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. He was released five years later in 2014, on the day the U.S. and Cuba officially announced thawing of relations after more than 50 years of hostilities.