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Diaz-Balart puts stamp on Latin America programs in spending bill

More money sought for broadcasting aimed at Cuba

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., backed legislation passed by the House Wednesday to ensure weapons continue to flow to Israel. The Biden administrat, iion called the bill "a misguided reaction.s using the fiscal 2024 bill to steer money to his Latin America priorities.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., backed legislation passed by the House Wednesday to ensure weapons continue to flow to Israel. The Biden administrat, iion called the bill "a misguided reaction.s using the fiscal 2024 bill to steer money to his Latin America priorities. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, in his first year as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee with responsibility for foreign aid, is putting his thumbprint on Western Hemisphere programs, particularly when it comes to Cuba and Colombia.

In the draft House fiscal 2024 State-Foreign Operations spending bill, where funding is slashed or even eliminated across numerous categories of foreign aid, particularly for climate change and multilateral programs, Diaz-Balart, who is Cuban American, wants to boost funding by 50 percent for democracy promotion efforts in Cuba, from $20 million in fiscal 2023 to $30 million.

The Florida Republican also wants to nearly triple funding for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting despite questions about whether editorial judgment deficiencies, which led among other things to the airing of antisemitic conspiracy theories, have been addressed. The Miami-based Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which is part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, produces Radio and TV Martí and news and editorial content shared over social media and YouTube.

The agency found in a May 2019 independent audit that the office was producing anti-Castro regime propaganda as opposed to providing the “accurate, balanced and complete information for the Cuban people” that is its mission. The agency also said in that report that the office in May 2018 aired a “blatantly anti-semitic video segment.” 

The fiscal 2023 bipartisan omnibus spending law provided just under $13 million to the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, the same amount as fiscal 2022. The House fiscal 2024 bill would provide $35 million for Radio and TV Martí. 

The Biden administration requested a minor increase to bring the Office of Cuba Broadcasting to $15 million, according to the American Federation of Government Employees. The federal labor union has lobbied Congress to instead return funding to its level in fiscal 2017 before the scandals brought the office into disfavor with congressional appropriators.

The Cuba money is a small part of a bill that would provide $52.5 billion in discretionary funding for diplomacy and development activities in fiscal 2024, down $7.2 billion, or 12 percent, from fiscal 2023 enacted levels.

“Two main issues I was looking at when I was putting this bill together: national security interest and the national debt,” Diaz-Balart, the son of a prominent Cuban exile who settled his family in Florida after fleeing the Castro regime, said in an interview with Fox News last week. “So, we support our allies much stronger, in a much stronger way than this administration … while, by the way, cutting wasteful spending.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the highest-ranking Cuban American in Congress and a reliable critic of any softening of U.S. government policies toward Cuba, released a scathing statement about the House State-Foreign Operations bill last week, but was silent about the Cuba money. He has been a critic of Radio Martí in the past, particularly of its airing of the 2018 anti-Semitic segment.

“House Republicans’ proposal to gut our foreign affairs budget would be catastrophic to U.S. global leadership and a strategic gift to China,” he said. “Playing culture wars with our foreign policy agenda undermines our strategic objectives to address climate change, global health, and empower women and marginalized populations. I strongly encourage the House of Representatives to reject this misguided agenda, and instead invest in a foreign affairs budget that furthers the United States’ objectives on the world stage.”

The 296-page draft House bill would also defer foreign aid to Colombia due to Diaz-Balart’s unhappiness with the policies of Colombian President Gustavo Petro, including peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN) that in the 1990s was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department.

“The committee will continue to assess the actions of the Petro Government and its relations with Venezuela, Cuba, and Russia, as the process moves forward,” said a press release from Diaz-Balart’s office. “With previous assistance amounting to $500 million annually, the committee wants to watch how events unfold in Colombia.”

Diaz-Balart said in an interview in January that he would be giving more attention to this hemisphere.

“This hemisphere is not doing well right now, whether it’s human rights, whether its freedom of the press, whatever it may be. There’s been a huge backsliding in the Western Hemisphere,” he said. And in a subsequent statement, he endorsed the work of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting despite the criticism of its own parent organization.

“I strongly believe in the passion, dedication, and strong work ethic of the journalists, contractors, and other hard-working employees at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting,” the statement said.

The fiscal 2024 spending legislation would also withhold 50 percent of appropriated funds provided to the central governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras until the State Department certifies that each government is cooperating with the U.S. to counter drug trafficking and human smuggling, and working to facilitate the return, repatriation, and reintegration of migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border. The bill would require the three governments to improve conditions related to the rule of law, human rights and corruption before the funding, exact levels of which were not specified in the bill, would be released.

The legislation would withhold 15 percent of the funding provided to the office of Secretary of State Antony Blinken until he reports to congressional appropriators that negotiations have begun with the three Northern Triangle governments and with the Mexican government on so-called “Remain in Mexico” agreements.

These burden-sharing agreements as envisioned by Diaz-Balart and other House Republicans would cover regional immigration enforcement; expediting the legal claims of asylum applicants; and the processing, detention and repatriation of migrants refused entry to the U.S.

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