On April 3, 2014, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the U.S. Agency for International Aid (USAID) had been providing financial support from 2008 through 2012 for “a secret plan to build a social media project aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government.” This “messaging network . . . [was designed to] reach hundreds of thousands of Cubans.” “To hide the network from the Cuban government, [there was a] byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account, and . . . [recruitment of] unsuspecting executives who would not be told of the company’s ties to the U.S. government.”
According to the AP, after an initial period of creating non-political messages for this social media program, the U.S. planed to “introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize ‘smart mobs’ — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice that might trigger a Cuban Spring, or, as one USAID document put it, “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” In short, the social media program aimed to promote regime change in Cuba.
U.S. Government’s Responses to the AP Report
The U.S. Government responded to the AP article the same day by essentially confirming the existence of the social media program while playing word games over whether it was a covert operation and saying it was not aimed at changing the Cuba regime.
At an April 3rd press briefing, President Obama’s Press Secretary, Jay Carney, implicitly admitted the existence of this secret program while claiming it was not covert and was pursuant to congressionally authorized funding. He said, “suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong. . . . In implementing programs in non-permissive environments, of course the government has taken steps to be discreet.”
An USAID spokesman the same day said essentially the same thing. “Of course, [in] the implementation, . . the [U.S.]government [has] taken steps to be discreet in non-permissive environments . . . . That’s how you protect the practitioners and the public. In hostile environments, we often take steps to protect the partners we’re working with on the ground. This is not unique to Cuba.”
USAID also issued an April 3rd statement that did not deny the AP’s report. Instead, the agency said, “It is longstanding U.S. policy to help Cubans increase their ability to communicate with each other and with the outside world. Working with resources provided by Congress for exactly this purpose, USAID is proud of its work in Cuba to provide basic humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and universal freedoms, and to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people. All of our work in Cuba, including this project, was reviewed in detail in 2013 by the Government Accountability Office and found to be consistent with U.S. law and appropriate under oversight controls.”
USAID added, “It is also no secret that in hostile environments, governments take steps to protect the partners we are working with on the ground.” This was a backhanded way of admitting that the U.S. government’s involvement in this Cuban social media program was intentionally kept secret.
The U.S. State Department’s April 3rd briefing parroted these remarks. The spokesperson said, “there was nothing classified or covert about this program. Discreet does not equal covert.” She added, the funding was notified to Congress in a 2008 congressional notification titled “Outreach to New Sectors of Cuba Society” for the amount of $6,850,000 for a number of programs, including this one.” Moreover, the spokesperson alleged the U.S. was not “ somehow trying to foment unrest . . . [or] to advance a specific political agenda or point of view.” However, Senator Patrick Leahy has said he was not briefed on the program.
Yes, the U.S. Government Accountability Office investigated and last year issued a “clean bill of health” report on the U.S. “Cuba Democracy Assistance” programs, without mentioning the social media program. This report said that USAID and “Department of State . . . provide democracy assistance for Cuba aimed at developing civil society and promoting freedom of information. Typical program beneficiaries include Cuban community leaders, independent journalists, women, youths, and marginalized groups.”
Other U.S. Government Programs Directed at Cuba
The recent Cuban social media project must be seen in light of at least three other U.S. programs directed at and against Cuba.
First is the George W. Bush Administration’s creation in 2003 of the U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. It was directed it to report with recommendations for a comprehensive program to (i) “Bring about a peaceful, near-term end to the [Cuban] dictatorship;” (ii) “Establish democratic institutions, respect for human rights and the rule of law [in Cuba];” (iii) “Create the core institutions of a free economy [in Cuba];” (iv) “Modernize [Cuban] infrastructure;” and (v) “Meet [Cuban] basic needs in the areas of health, education, housing and human services.”
This Commission issued a report in May 2004 that stated “Religious organizations, including Catholic and certain authentically independent Protestant denominations, represent the fastest growing and potentially fastest growing alterative to the Cuban state in providing basic services and information to the Cuban people.” (P. 20; emphasis added.)
The rest of this report makes clear that the Commission believed that only evangelical Christian groups were authentically independent and should be used by the U.S. to build a free Cuba. According to this report, they had “the trust of the people and the means to organize through an existing social network of communications and distribution channels at all levels of society.”[i]
The report also called for the U.S. to avoid trying to use the Cuban Council of Churches, which the U.S. Commission believed had been “taken over by the Castro regime in the early 1960s and used as a means to control the Protestant churches.” (P. 64.) However, most of the clergy and laity of churches that belong to the Council, the Commission asserted, were “not sympathasizers of Castro and the communists and therefore should not be denied assistance or a role in Cuban religious affairs due to ‘guilt by association.” (P. 64)
The second other U.S. program directed against Cuba was the George W. Bush Administration’s 2005 creation of the position of Cuba Transition Coordinator in the State Department to implement the recommendations of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. Or in the words of then-Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, the position’s purpose was to “accelerate the demise of Castro’s tyranny.” In more practical terms, this position was charged with allocating millions of dollars in U.S. funding to Cuban dissidents and their U.S. supporters.
The third other program directed against Cuba is Radio y Televisión Martí, a radio and television broadcaster based in Miami, Florida that is financed by the U.S. Government (Broadcasting Board of Governors) and that transmits pro-democracy newscasts to Cuba.
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Reports on Cuba
Another U.S. commission—the Commission on International Religious Freedom– in its annual reports consistently has been very critical of that freedom in Cuba.
This Commission has placed Cuba in its “Watch List,” now called its “Tier 2” list of countries “where religious persecution and other violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments are increasing” or is “on the threshold of . . . [‘Countries of Particular Concern’] status—because the “violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are particularly severe and that at least one, but not all three, of the elements of [the governing statute’s] ‘systematic, ongoing, egregious’ standard is met (e.g., the violations are egregious but not systematic or ongoing).”
The Commission apparently based its very negative appraisal of Cuba in its most recent report for 2012 (issued in 2013) on the following grounds with respect to the Cuban government:
- alleged arrests and mistreatment of evangelical pastors, especially Pentacostal pastor Reutilio Columbie;
- alleged arrests of human rights/democracy activists, including the Ladies in White, which prevented them for attending mass; and
- alleged harassment of Cuba’s Apostolic Reformation Movement and the Western Baptist Convention by allegedly making “short-term arrests of [their] leaders, confiscation, destruction or threats of destruction of church property; harassment and surveillance of church members and their relatives; fines of churches; and threats of losses of job, housing or educational opportunities….”
This Blog’s Prior Critiques of the Commission’s Assessment of Cuba
First, as the Commission reports themselves proclaim, there have been “improvements” or “[p]ostive developments” for the religious freedom of most of the religious organizations on the island. The most recent report states:
- “Positive developments for the Catholic Church and major registered Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, continued over the last year. The State Department reports that religious communities were given greater freedom to discuss politically sensitive issues. Catholic and Protestant Sunday masses were held in more prisons throughout the island. Religious denominations continued to report increased opportunities to conduct some humanitarian and charity work, receive contributions from co-religionists outside Cuba, and obtain Bibles and other religious materials. Small, local processions continued to occur in the provinces in 2012. The government granted the Cuban Council of Churches time for periodic broadcasts early Sunday mornings, and Cuba’s Roman Catholic Cardinal read Christmas and Easter messages on state-run stations.”
- “Relations between the Catholic Church and Cuban government continued to improve. March 2012 marked the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin de Caridad de Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), Cuba’s patron saint. Pope Benedict XVI travelled to Cuba March 26-29 to participate in the celebrations, at which time he met Fidel Castro and Cuban President Rául Castro. Throughout the year, a replica of the Our Lady of Charity statue toured the island drawing large crowds. Prior to the Pope’s visit, 13 individuals occupied the Church of Charity of Cobre in Central Havana seeking an audience with His Holiness. The government removed, but did not charge, the individuals at the request of the Church.”
Second, the Commission’s statements about positive developments cover, I submit, most of the religious organizations and believers in Cuba, whereas the organizations cited by the Commission for its harsh judgments are the distinct minority. That, of course, does not excuse the Cuban government from committing any of the alleged acts regarding these organizations and believers, if that in fact is the case.
Third, the Commission’s complaint about the treatment of “human rights/democracy activists,” if they are substantiated by evidence, are really complaints about violations of human rights other than religious freedom. Therefore, they do not really belong in the limited scope of the Commission’s mandate.
Fourth, the Commission apparently is unable to put itself in the shoes of the Cuban government, which for many years has had to contend with the super power of the North, which has consistently taken hostile actions against the island, including those of the “Cuba Democracy Assistance” program. The wise words of Matthew 7: 5 come to mind: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
This blogger concludes that the revelation yesterday of the U.S. secret social media program for Cuba as part of the U.S.’ so called “Cuba Democracy Assistance” programs should raise serious questions about the legitimacy of the conclusions on Cuban religious freedom coming from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Specifically, there should be an independent investigation of whether Cuba’s Apostolic Reformation Movement, its Western Baptist Convention and pastor Reutilio Columbie have received or are receiving any funding or other support from the U.S. Government, including USAID, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and the Commission on International Religious Freedom itself. I hope that this is not the case.
More generally, such an investigation should determine whether the harshly negative views of the Commission on International Religious Freedom are being driven by the philosophy and objectives of the Cuba Assistance Programs. Again I hope this is not the case.
 The Cuban government also reacted to the AP article by saying in Granma it “confirms the repeated complaints of the Cuban government. It shows once again that the U.S. government has not given up its subversive plans against Cuba, which aim to create situations of destabilization in the country to bring about change in our political system and which continues to devote multimillion dollar budgets each year. The U.S. government must respect international law and the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and, therefore, cease its illegal and covert actions against Cuba, which are rejected by the Cuban people and the international public opinion.”