White House

Trump seeks to slash democracy funds for Venezuela, Cuba

President Donald Trump wants to slash funds that support democracy projects in Venezuela and Cuba while seeking authority from Congress to transfer up to $500 million to help a new transitional government takeover if Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro falls.

Trump is proposing a 40 percent cut to funds that promote democracy and human rights in Venezuela at the same time that he and Vice President Mike Pence make promises to stick by the Venezuelan people until Maduro is ousted and their democracy is restored.

Trump is promising an even steeper 70 percent cut to democracy assistance in Cuba, raising concerns at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue that the Trump administration is undercutting its own promises by not matching money to message.

“There is a huge disconnect between the budget folks and the policy folks,” said a senior administration official concerned about the conflicting messages. “It sends a horrible message to the people in those countries. On the one hand where the president and vice president say they support the people and their struggle for freedom and democracy. And yet that priority is not reflected in the budget.”

This financial assistance provided by the United States supports local organizations working on human rights and civil society. It supports independent media. It also helps pay for training on good government for members of Venezuela’s National Assembly, whose president, Juan Guaidó, has galvanized a movement across the hemisphere and is seen by 54 nations around the world as the legitimate president of Venezuela.

Trump is proposing $9 million to promote democracy and human rights in Venezuela, but Congress approved $15 million in the current fiscal year. Trump is proposing $6 million to promote democracy and human rights in Cuba, but Congress approved $20 million in the current fiscal year.

The democracy cuts are part of Trump’s overall $4.75 trillion budget plan that boosted defense spending by $750 million while calling for steep cuts at most every federal agency, including a 23 percent cut at the State Department.

The Trump administration is helping lead a coalition of regional allies who are seeking to oust Maduro from the once oil-rich nation that has plummeted into an economic and humanitarian crisis that has forced more than three million people to flee. Top officials, including Pence, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have repeatedly called for democracy to be restored in Venezuela during speeches to supporters on television and via social media.

USAID Administrator Mark Green told the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere last month how thankful the Guaidó team inside Venezuela was for the democracy support.

“That should be particularly gratifying to all of you because of the democracy assistance programs for Venezuela that you’ve invested in over these last five years on a bipartisan basis,” Green said. “This assistance has supported local organizations working on human rights, civil society, independent media, electoral oversight, and the democratically-elected national assembly.”

The administration has significantly ratched up its rhetoric for democracy over communism since Bolton’s Troika of Tyranny speech in November in which he called the leaders of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua “clowns” and said the United States “looks forward to watching” their governments fall.

The Trump administration called for a reduction in democracy spending for Nicaragua — to $6 million from $10 million.

The State Department said $6 million for Cuba shows the island nation remains a priority and U.S. officials are continuing to monitor the situation in Venezuela. Since 2017, the government has provided more than $195 million—including more than $152 million in humanitarian assistance and approximately $43 million in development and economic assistance to regional allies where displaced Venezuelans have fled.

“The FY 2020 budget request provides flexibility to make funds available to support a peaceful democratic transition in Venezuela and respond to related needs in the region, including authority to transfer up to $500 million between foreign assistance accounts to support a whole of government response to the crisis,” said Julia Davis, a State Department spokesperson.

Some in Congress have come to the administration’s defense.

“While Congress tends to appropriate at higher levels, the president’s budget is historically lower than what’s requested by the Legislative branch,” a Republican Senate staffer said. “This administration continues to stand strong with the Venezuelan people and their road towards the restoration of their democratic order.”

The Obama administration also tried to cut Cuba funding, but was blocked by members of Congress. In 2017, the State Department presented to Congress a budget with zero financing for programs related to Cuba under its economic support and development fund. Aid to Venezuela was also slashed.

On Monday, Pompeo outlined how the Trump administration is seeking to transfer $500 million to help during a transition if Maduro is eventually unseated.

But some in the administration and Capitol Hill are concerned that the allocation will never materialize, be severely reduced or be long delayed because the administration didn’t authorize the money nor create a plan about where the money would come from

“If they were serious about it, they would have actually dedicated the funds and explained how they were going to do it instead of just promising to take money from elsewhere,” said a Democratic congressional aid. “It’s an empty promise.”

In an interview Monday with McClatchy’s Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, Pompeo said the administration is working to make sure that the citizens of Venezuela no longer have “to suffer under the tragic conditions that Maduro” has forced on his people.

“We’re prepared to provide more aid than any other country in the world,” Pompeo said. “And you should know that America remains the most generous nation in the world when it comes to humanitarian assistance and more broadly assistance to countries all around the globe. And when Venezuela turns the corner, it will be America, along with other countries in the region, who will be there to make sure there’s long-term support for the success of the Venezuelan people.”

But when pressed why make such drastic cuts at such a critical time, Pompeo pushed back.

“You just have your math wrong,” he said.

The next day, a senior administration official acknowledged the numbers were correct and explained the cuts were part of overall non-defense reductions.

“While the administration views the State Department and USAID’s roles in diplomacy and development as critical to national security, the administration remains committed to restraining overall non-defense discretionary spending, including for the State Department and USAID,” the official said.

Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
Support my work with a digital subscription
Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.