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Democrats call on Biden to spend more money on Cuba democracy initiatives

·6 min read

After historic anti-regime protests broke out across Cuba, anti-embargo Democrats in Congress are attempting — without success so far — to turn on the money spigot.

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez urged the Biden administration to increase funding for satellite feeds and tethered balloons to shore up internet access in Cuba. Florida Rep. Val Demings asked the State Department to spend discretionary funds on technology that helps Cubans circumvent internet firewalls. And three House Democrats broke with their party on funding votes this week after two amendments to increase funds for “democracy programs” in Cuba were not included in the bill.

“I understand the passion of the community, I understand what they want to see,” Menendez said. “The president has taken, as I said in my speech, some pretty bold, affirmative steps. I’m aware the administration is in the midst of doing other things and as soon as they announce that I think the community will be of the belief that the president is doing more than we have seen in a long time.”

Asked for a reasonable timeline for the president to make additional Cuba announcements, Menendez said, “Yesterday.”

Last week, the president announced sanctions for the general in charge of the Cuban military and a special forces unit, a review on increasing staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana and forming a working group that will consider remittances for Cuban families. A group of Cuban Americans met with President Joe Biden late Friday afternoon after mass protests outside the White House on July 26 urged the president to do more.

Biden said Friday he wants to increase “direct support for the Cuban people by pursuing every option available to provide Internet access and pledged more sanctions on regime officials involved in violent crackdowns on protests.”

“There will be more, unless there’s some drastic change in Cuba, which I don’t anticipate,” Biden said.

Dispute on amendments

The president’s 2022 budget included $20 million for “democracy programs” in Cuba, a request submitted before the July 11 protests on the island. The House of Representatives agreed to that sum of money, which can be spent in many different ways by the State Department, but Florida Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy attempted to increase the amount by $7.5 million after the protests drew widespread attention.

New Jersey Democratic Rep. Albio Sires, a Cuban American whose family fled the Castro regime, also attempted to increase funding for Radio and Television Martí by $15 million.

The amendments were supported by 15 lawmakers from both parties, including every member from Miami-Dade and Broward counties, with the exception of Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives did not consider both amendments in the State Department’s yearly funding bill, prompting Murphy, South Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Sires to vote “no” on procedural votes related to the bill.

The legislation, without the extra Cuba funding, passed the House on a 217 to 212 vote, though all three Democrats ultimately voted “yes” on the final bill, a broad piece of legislation that provides funds for the State Department. It now heads to the U.S. Senate for approval.

“I voted against moving forward on the Foreign Ops bill b/c the process overly restricted votes on amendments, including my bipartisan amendment to U.S. support for democracy, human rights, political prisoners, & uncensored info in Cuba,” Murphy tweeted after the vote. “Congress must empower the Cuban people.”

Last year, the House of Representatives included a similar amendment from Murphy to increase democracy funding for Venezuela from $30 million to $33 million, but Cuba did not merit a similar increase in 2021.

The decision not to include the additional Cuba funding was criticized by Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart in a floor speech.

“I am outraged that the Democratic majority refused to make in order two amendments, bipartisan amendments, that were led by two of my Democratic colleagues who by the way are passionate about the cause of a free Cuba and the freedom of the Cuban people,” Diaz-Balart said, while praising Murphy, Sires and Wasserman Schultz for being “true defenders” for the Cuban people.

A number of prominent Democrats, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, voiced opposition to the Cuba embargo after the protests, a position that is not shared by Wasserman Schultz and Sires, while Murphy said “people can have different opinions on the wisdom of the U.S. embargo toward Cuba. But the main reason Cubans lack freedom and economic opportunity is the Cuban regime, not the U.S. government or U.S. policy.”

Spending on internet access

As Republicans continue to argue that Biden should do more to restore internet access to Cuba, Demings, who is running for U.S. Senate in 2022 against Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, is asking the Biden administration to spend every cent of a $2.5 million pot of money passed each year for internet freedom programs in “closed societies” if the Secretary of State determines that money is “in the national interest.”

In a letter to the State Department, Demings said the $2.5 million allocated for 2019, 2020 and 2021 was not spent by the Trump administration, meaning there could be $7.5 million available immediately. She wants the State Department to dole out the money to the Open Technology Fund, a government-affiliated non-profit that provides funding for Psiphon, an internet censorship circumvention tool that has won praise from Republicans and Democrats for allowing Cubans to bypass censors after the July 11 protests.

“Right now, an immediate infusion of funding is critical for networks to remain fully functional and meeting surging demand,” Demings wrote in a letter to the State Department on Thursday. “The 1.425 million daily users represent a 7,100% increase in use in a 6-day span, and more than 3 million Cubans have downloaded the technology required to access the network. As the crackdown continues and more Cubans adopt the technology, greater resources will be necessary to maintain connectivity.”

Demings’ office said Friday she did not get an immediate response from the State Department.

In addition to firewall circumvention tools, Menendez asked Biden to “accelerate” efforts to provide internet directly to Cubans during a 30-minute Senate floor speech.

“We must accelerate our efforts to provide them with the tools they need to do so, whether that is satellite feeds, whether that is tethered global balloons, whether that is a multiplicity of options,” Menendez said. “Because a beam can be jammed, we need to find a way to get the people of Cuba internet connection.”

Menendez’s calls for increased internet access align with calls from Florida Republicans like Gov. Ron DeSantis to use balloons to expand internet capability, though using them effectively without access to Cuban airspace presents challenges.

Menendez said the administration can clearly articulate its policy goals for Cuba through a new executive order “to provide direction for U.S. policy.”

“The order should hone our accountability measures for persons involved in human rights abuses and those who materially support them,” Menendez said. “It should solidify our strategies on internet access and support for the Cuban people.”

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