The U.S. Agency for International Development is pushing ahead with Cuba programs worth $21 million, although another $20 million remains blocked after oddly mixed signals by aides to Democratic Sen. John Kerry.
Staffers on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, chaired by Kerry, lifted his "hold" on the money Friday but put it back on ice Monday, said several U.S. government officials.
"Something smells bad," Investor's Business Daily wrote in an editorial that quoted unidentified Capitol Hill sources as pointing a finger at a "rogue" committee staffer "with pro-Cuba sympathies."
USAID's public notices Monday requesting proposals on how to spend $21 million were merely a procedural step for future multi-year programs, said the U.S. officials, who asked for anonymity.
The three notices listed $9 million for civil society entities such as cooperatives and church groups; $6 million to expand Cubans' access to information; and $6 million to increase free expression among Cubans aged 12 to 14.
The $21 million has not been approved by Congress. The $20 million being blocked by Kerry is part of $40 million for Cuba democracy programs already approved by the full Congress in 2008.
Cuba has made it illegal to cooperate with the programs and sentenced USAID subcontractor Alan Gross to 15 years in prison for delivering communications equipment paid for by the U.S. government to Jewish groups on the island.
Kerry put a "hold" on the money in April, arguing the programs were wasteful and provocative.
But he seemed ready to give in last week. His committee staffers notified the State Department — which includes USAID — on Friday that the hold was being lifted, but then on Monday it returned, several U.S. officials told El Nuevo Herald.
Committee spokesman Frederick Jones, asked twice on Monday about reports that the Kerry hold had been lifted, replied only that "the status remains the same."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has a second hold on the Cuba money because of questions about the programs, but those are widely expect to be resolved this week.
The Tuesday editorial in Investor's Business Daily, a national business journal, said Kerry is "inexplicably" holding up the $20 million.
The Kerry committee note to the State Department putting the hold on the money asked for the names of all contractors and subcontractors involved in the Cuba programs. The State Department reply did not provide the names, amid complaints they might be leaked to Havana.
The editorial added that the Cuban programs hold goes against the interests of Kerry, widely reported to be interested in serving as the next secretary of state.
Kerry's nomination would have to be confirmed by the Foreign Affairs Committee.
But if he leaves the Senate, he is likely to be succeeded as chairman by New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, a Cuban-American Democrat who strongly favors the Cuba democracy programs.
Kerry's hold also runs counter to an Obama administration "liberation technology" campaign to help dissidents in repressive countries use secretive Internet and mobile phone technologies to sidestep government controls.
The campaign involves an "Internet in a suitcase" and "stealth wireless networks" to allow dissidents in countries such as Iran, Syria and Libya to communicate with each other and abroad, according to a New York Times report published Sunday.