Cuba spending: Setting the record straight

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Earlier this month, I reported that the U.S. Agency for International Development had spent nearly $50 million toward Cuba projects since Donald Trump took office, and the National Endowment for Democracy had spent about $23 million.
On Friday, I discovered I made a mistake. I redid my calculations today and now believe that USAID has spent $39,805,602 and the NED, $11,604,306.
Here’s why I missed the mark the first time around:
I made my initial calculations using data extracted from Foreign Aid Explorer (download file) and USASpending.gov.
The Foreign Aid Explorer file is massive with more than a million rows and spending records totaling more than $3 billion. As I sifted through the file looking for Cuba spending, I inadvertently included both disbursements (what the government actually spends) and obligations (what the government intends to spend). That’s why the numbers were inflated. I didn’t filter out the obligated spending and so I wound up counting some items twice.
One of my readers, a retired lawyer who is more astute about these things than I am, asked me several weeks ago why there were discrepancies in some of my numbers. I thought it was due to differences in how agencies were reporting their spending. Now I believe the problem was due to an error in my calculations. I plan to review past posts on spending to hunt for similar mistakes – I suspect there are some – and I will correct the numbers.
I would like to blame all this on my old 2011 iMac, which sometimes struggles just to open some of these huge Excel files. But the blame falls squarely on my vintage 1959 brain.
One reason I favor government spending reports, court documents and other official records is that they help bring clarity to complicated and sometimes polarizing issues and topics. But they are no good if the journalist misinterprets them.
When I make a mistake, I recall my first year or two as a reporter in northern Colorado. I remember one Saturday when we needed a feature story for the next day’s paper. I had no ideas. An editor suggested I go to the local hospital to interview the family of a teen-ager admitted for treatment of a supposedly mysterious disease. A little newspaper in Wyoming had first reported the news.
So I headed to the hospital and interviewed the girl’s relatives and they repeated the sad story about the mysterious disease. I wanted to interview the teen-ager’s doctor to confirm the story, but had no luck finding him. My deadline was fast approaching and so I rushed back to the newspaper and wrote the story.
After it appeared in print, one of the girl’s relatives called and said the story was all wrong. There was no mysterious disease. The girl had tried to give herself an abortion and was in the hospital recovering.
I felt awful after learning of my mistake. I remembered what a journalism professor had told me when I was in college. Publishing is like going to a mountaintop and throwing a fistful of feathers into the wind. Correcting a mistake is like trying to go back the next day and pick up all the feathers. You can’t do it. It’s too late.
But sometimes there’s no progress without mistakes. I will continue to strive for accuracy, and if you see any errors on my site, feel free to send me an email at maninhavana@yahoo.com and I’ll look into it.

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