WASHINGTON — In the first vote on Cuba legislation under a Democrat-controlled Congress, the House on Thursday easily approved a big increase in money for U.S. programs that support dissidents on the island.
The House also approved a proposal that would provide Voice of America with $10 million to bolster its broadcasts to Venezuela, where news media freedoms have been seen as under attack by leftwing President Hugo Chavez.
And the House was expected to pass late Thursday a proposal to make big cuts in military aid to Colombia - in the most significant change to the $5 billion U.S. anti-drug trafficking program known as Plan Colombia since its inception in 2000. However, Republicans critical of the proposal agreed to let the bill pass while planning to challenge it later during House-Senate negotiations.
The $34 billion State Department foreign aid bill for 2008 provided several avenues for Democrats to challenge some of President Bush's policies on Colombia and Cuba, with the administration and its backers scoring a victory on Cuba.
President Bush requested almost $46 million for Cuba democracy programs for the 2008 fiscal year, a five-fold jump from the 2007 level, in keeping with a recommendation by an interagency commission that said the money would help bring democracy to the island.
Democrats on an appropriations panel that oversees State Department foreign aid bills - chaired by Rep. Nita Lowey of New York - had cut the aid level back to $9 million, arguing there was not enough oversight to ensure the money would be well spent.
An amendment proposed by Cuban-American Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, and Albio Sires, a New Jersey Democrat, to adopt the original Bush funding request passed by a 254-170 vote, with 66 Democrats joining 188 Republicans in support.
The Cuba bill still requires Senate approval. But the vote "significantly strengthened" Bush's efforts to get more money for the Cuba programs, Diaz-Balart's office said in a statement.
Thursday's floor debate turned passionate at times. While some lawmakers questioned the Cuba democracy program's effectiveness, supporters argued Fidel Castro's illness and the impending transition in Cuba meant the opposition on the island needed more support.
Each side cited passages from a November General Accountability Office report on the Cuba programs.
That report said there were management and oversight problems and some instances of abuses, such as the purchase of Godiva chocolates and cashmere sweaters. But it also noted that dissidents were receiving radios, literature, medicine and other needed aid.
Diaz-Balart said the GAO report never recommended any cuts and the U.S. Agency for International Development had incorporated all the GAO recommendations to improve program oversight.
He told members he had a letter from prominent Cuban dissidents in support of the programs and said similar programs helped the Eastern European opposition against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
"Let us not turn our backs on the Cuban internal opposition," Diaz-Balart said. "They will play a key role in the inevitable democratic transition that is approaching."
On Venezuela, the House backed a proposal by Florida Republican Rep. Connie Mack that would provide $10 million for the Voice of America to boost its broadcasts to Venezuela.
"Freedom of the press died in Venezuela on May 27, 2007, when Chavez shut down Radio Caracas Television," Mack said on the House floor, referring to RCTV, an opposition TV station that was denied its broadcast license, triggering international condemnation.
The initiative must still clear the Senate but Democrats have given indications they are in no mood to go easy on the Venezuelan leader.
At a hearing Tuesday, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the influential chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, condemned the Venezuelan leader for visiting "the most reprehensible despots in the world" in North Korea, Iran and Cuba and moving toward "his own brand of authoritarianism."
On Colombia, the House was set to approve late Thursday an overall $60 million reduction in Plan Colombia, including a sharp $160 million cut in military aid but adding $101 million in economic and social assistance. Democrats argued a new approach was needed as cocaine production appeared to hold despite an expensive U.S.-led effort to fumigate and eradicate coca crops.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.)