Reactions to Reopening of U.S. and Cuba Embassies and Other Issues Regarding U.S.-Cuba Normalization

As discussed in an earlier post, on the morning of July 20, 2015, Cuba officially opened its Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the United States did likewise in Havana although the ceremonial opening of the latter will be on August 14 when Secretary of State John Kerry goes to Havana to preside over that event. Another post, that afternoon’s joint press conference at the U.S. Department of State by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez; yet another post, recent comments about Cuba by the White House Press Secretary.

Now we look at the reactions to the significant issues raised by these events: (1) restoration of diplomatic relations; (2) future changes in Cuba; (3) future changes in Cuban human rights; (4) ending the U.S. embargo (or blockade) of Cuba; (5) altering or terminating Cuba’s lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S.; (6) ending U.S. Radio and TV Marti; (7) ending USAID and other covert U.S. “democracy” programs in Cuba; (8) Cuba’s returning U.S. fugitives; and (9) nominating and confirming the appointment of an U.S. ambassador to Cuba.

1. Restoration of U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Relations?

There has been substantial U.S. approval of the restoration of diplomatic relations.

According to the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), for instance, 12 public opinion polls conducted and released since January 1 show that “public support for the Cuba opening is strong, growing, and pervasive. Support for the new policy is bipartisan. It is significantly high among segments of voters — such as Hispanics — that candidates running for office increasingly care about. Most of all, the latest research shows that public support is rising. For example, support for ending the embargo was measured in July by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs at 67%, and earlier this year by Gallup at 59% and by the Associated Press at 60%.”[1]

Moreover, CDA sees “evidence that public support for America’s new Cuba policy is exerting its force on policymakers in the U.S. Congress.” It points to last week’s action of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s approving amendments eliminating House measures that would impede normalization in various ways[2] and to Republican legislators—Senator Dean Heller (NV) and Representative Bradley Byrne (AL)–who recently joined the ranks of supporters of normalization.

Despite the vigorous opposition to normalization repeatedly expressed by Cuban-Americans in Congress—Senators Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Rep., FL) and Mario Diaz-Balart (Rep., FL) [3]—there has been little organized opposition to normalization in the Cuban-American community, especially in Florida.[4]

This assessment has been confirmed by prominent Cubans in the U.S. and on the island. Pedro Freyre, a Cuban-born Miami lawyer with a national law firm representing several U.S. and foreign clients seeking to do business in Cuba and a former hardliner himself, said, “It’s over and done in Miami. It died with a whimper.” Indeed, he added that President Obama’s new policy was now widely accepted by South Florida’s 1.5 million Cuban exiles. Similar views were expressed in the Miami Herald by Mike Fernandez, a healthcare millionaire and Bush supporter, who said, “Cuban-Americans everywhere, but especially the diaspora in South Florida, have been awakening to the reality that Cuba’s isolation was and is not a sustainable strategy. It’s time to accept change. Let us not heed those relatively few voices who would go on continuing to trap our minds in hatred.” Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a former Cuban diplomat who is close to President Raúl Castro and his brother Fidel, put it best. He said, “The genie is out of the bottle. And once it’s out, you’re not going to be able to put it back in.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN), who is the author of a bipartisan bill to lift the embargo, said this must be done for the U.S. to avoid losing investment opportunities that will come with loosening of travel restrictions to the island. She said, “Once millions of American tourists are going, they will need places to stay and they will need food to eat. … So when they come, they are going to be starting to sleep in Spanish hotels and eat German foods because those countries will be able to supply what they need in the tourism industry, not to mention the computers and Wi-Fi and everything else.”[5]

James Williams, the President of Engage Cuba, a major bipartisan group promoting this normalization, issued a statement on the reopening of embassies. He said, “we begin a new chapter of engagement between our two countries. American diplomats will now be much better equipped to engage with the Cuban people and civil society. They will be in a stronger position to elevate issues of concern, like human rights, as well as expanding on areas of cooperation with Cuba.” He pointed out that the “vast majority of the American people, and 97% of the Cuban people support opening relations. We applaud both governments for taking this important step to move forward beyond the Cold War policies of the past and call on Congress to play a constructive role at this historic moment of transition.”[6]

John Dinges, Associate Professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and an expert on U.S.-Cuba relations, said for the U.S. “the new relationship with Cuba removed a stumbling block in relations with the entire region, where the US attitude [was] considered irrational and stupid.”[7]

However, others argue that this change is misguided and erroneous. For example, Edward Gonzalez, professor emeritus of political science at U.C.L.A., stated that “in the face of potentially destabilizing change and high expectations at home, Cuban officials are tightening state controls in the short term.” Moreover, “given the regime’s totalitarian proclivity and apparatus, the state’s repression of dissidents and civil society, and its control over the lion’s share of the island’s economy, it is likely to continue into the distant future.” Therefore, he continues, the new U.S. engagement with Cuba “makes the [U.S.] complicit in propping up the regime both economically and politically, while leaving Cuban society even more isolated and defenseless vis-à-vis the all-powerful, coercive state.”[8]

Moreover, Senator Marco Rubio and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, currently two of the many contenders for the Republican nomination for president in 2016, have said that if elected president in 2016, they would rescind the diplomatic relations. And Senator Tom Cotton (Rep., AK) has pledged to “work to maintain and increase sanctions on the regime, block the confirmation of a new ambassador, demand the extradition of U.S. fugitives from justice, and hold the Castro regime accountable.”[9]

Secretary of State John Kerry in his July 20 interviews,[10] responded to these threats to rescind the relations with Cuba. Kerry said that whoever is elected president in 2016, including Marco Rubio, will have “the ability to make a decision [on whether or not to rescind the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba]. Congress, obviously, has an ability to have an impact on that.” [11] But I think it would be a terrible mistake [to rescind such diplomatic relations]. The vast majority of the American people believe this is a very good thing to do. It doesn’t make sense. I mean, we had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. We had diplomatic relations with then-called Red China. We have to have relationships with countries to do business. And American citizens get hurt when we don’t do that.” Moreover, Kerry added, “I believe . . . President [Obama] has taken an irreversible step. I do not believe a next president, Republican or Democrat, will change it.”

Kerry continued, “Given the fact there are so many Cuban Americans, people who have family in Cuba, to not have a relationship where we can advocate for people, advocate for human rights, advocate for fairness, for elections, for democracy, for travel, for engagement, and all these things that make a difference in the quality of life of Cubans would be a terrible, terrible mistake. So I think, as time goes on, people will see the benefits that come from this policy.”

2. Future Changes in Cuba?

As Foreign Minister Rodriguez’s July 20 statement and Secretary Kerry’s statements made clear and as both governments previously had recognized, the opening of the embassies did not mean the process of normalization had been completed. Indeed, it has just started.

Secretary Kerry, in his interviews, observed, There are “key issues in the normalization process, and . . . [Minster Rodriguez and I] both said today that it will be long and complex. . . . [T]he measure of progress and success is really going to come from what happens in the next months as we go through this early diplomatic rekindling of a relationship. My suspicion is that there’s a possibility it could move faster than people think, simply because I think the Cuban people want it. And as we are there doing diplomacy, more present, able to engage, we actually can work at these kinds of issues more effectively than we’ve been able to for the last 50, 60 years.”

Kerry added that if Cuba is “willing to embrace it, we can bring them a tremendous leap in their economy. We could bring a better standard of living to their people. We can bring technology. We can bring various modern instruments of education, of health delivery, of communications. And I believe that over time things will change . . . at a pace that will be acceptable and, frankly, helpful to Cuba.” Kerry also said, the U.S. wants to see “a true, deep engagement [by Cuba], a willingness to work through these issues. There’s so much that we can cooperate on right now. We want to cooperate on law enforcement, . . . the environment, . . . our visas, . . . health, education, the rights of people, . . . hemispheric issues and interests like the war in Colombia or the relationship with Venezuela.”

Although not in direct response to the reopening of the embassies, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro in his July 15 speech to Cuba’s legislature (the National Assembly of People’s Power)[12] asserted, “We will continue the process of transformations in Cuban society at our own pace, which we have sovereignly chosen, with the majority support of the people, in the interest of constructing a prosperous and sustainable socialism, the essential guarantee of our independence.” (Emphases added.) He reiterated this theme near the end of his speech with these words: “Changing everything which must be changed is the sovereign and exclusive domain of Cubans. The Revolutionary Government is willing to advance in the normalization of relations, convinced that both countries can cooperate and coexist in a civilized manner, to our mutual benefit, beyond the differences we have and will have, thus contributing to peace, security, stability, development and equity in our continent and the world.” (Emphases added.)

A New York Times editorial said, “The full normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba will take years and will be an arduous process. Issues that will be hard to resolve include the disposition of American property the Cuban government seized in the 1960s, and the fate of the United States Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, which the Cuban government considers an illegally occupied territory.”[13]

Professor Dinges offered a similar assessment of the future. He said, “’normal’ relations are not compatible with the [U.S.] travel ban, with [the U.S.] economic embargo, with a recent history of semi-clandestine operations by the [USAID] to promote economic and social discontent. I hope to see in the near future gestures of friendship and rapprochement. For the [U.S.], it is important to dismantle the Guantanamo prison, and the minimization of military forces at the base. On behalf of Cuba, a gesture of detente toward the Miami Cubans would not cost anything and could have huge benefits. . . . There is distrust, there is a long history of [U.S.] aggression [against Cuba]. . . . [He believes future] “changes will be economically, technically, diplomatically. It would be illusory to expect radical changes in political structures in Cuba. Equally unrealistic to think that the US will stop talking about democracy and human rights.”

3. Future Changes in Cuban Human Rights?

Probably the leading U.S. desire for future changes in Cuba is with respect to human rights. For example, in one of his July 20 interviews, Kerry said Cuba does not “want [domestic] interference, but they know we’re not going to stop raising human rights issues. We made that very clear. . . . [W]e’re not giving up the DNA of the [U.S.], which is a deep commitment to human rights, to the values of democracy, freedom of speech, and so forth. So those . . . will be on the agenda. But on the other hand, the great step forward here is that neither of us . . . [is] taking one of our issues of contention and making it a showstopper. We want to engage, and when you get to that point, that’s what begins to break down the barriers.”

Kerry also told Andrea Mitchell, “There’s been a little bit of give . . . [by Cuba] with respect to some agreement on human rights. And I think that over time the elections discussion and the more pointed human rights issues are going to be very much part of the discussion. They are in every country where we have an embassy and an ambassador. We are fearless in our determination to walk in and talk to the authorities and give them a shared our sense of the problems that exist.”

According to the non-governmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there were 2,822 politically related detentions in the first six months of 2015, less than half the 5,904 registered in the same period last year. Many of those detained this year, however, report being treated more roughly, however.[14]

The previous source also reports, “more than 20 U.S. lawmakers have come to Cuba since February without meeting with opposition groups that once were an obligatory stop for congressional delegations.” This was apparently due to “Cuban officials . . . [having] made clear that if Congress members meet with dissidents, they will not get access to high-ranking officials such as First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the man expected to be the next president of Cuba” and to U.S. assessment that “talking with Cuban leaders is clearly the most promising way to promote reform on the island.”

On the issue of Cuban human rights, I submit that there is an enormous cognitive dissonance in the minds of U.S. opponents of normalization. Here are the reasons for that conclusion:

  • First, any objective student of history has to conclude that the U.S., especially since the start of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, has committed and threatened serious acts of hostility towards Cuba, including the embargo, the 1961 U.S.-supported invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, the 1962 threatened bombing of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the embargo of the island and CIA attempts to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro. Moreover, U.S. hostility toward Cuba started at least in 1898 when it intervened in Cuba’s war of independence from Spain. Indeed, Foreign Minister Rodriguez’ July 20 speech referred to the late 19th century warning by José Marti of the U.S. “excessive craving for domination [over Cuba].”
  • Second, Cuba, therefore, has good reason to be fearful of the much larger and more powerful U.S. and as a result to take steps to protect itself against such perceived threats by restricting dissent. What would you do if you were in the Cubans’ shoes? It, therefore, will take time for Cuba to develop a sense of trust of the U.S. and as a result modify its restrictions on free speech and assembly.
  • Third, the self-proclaimed advocates of Cuban human rights like Rubio and Jeb Bush do not appear to be aware of the first two points. In addition, they apparently do not appreciate that their very hostility towards Cuba and normalization, purportedly on the ground of promoting Cuban human rights, instead contributes to Cuban skepticism about the good intentions of the U.S. and to the prolonging of Cuba’s restrictions on free speech and other civil liberties.

4. Ending the U.S. Embargo of Cuba?

Ending the embargo or blockade, of course, is a key demand by Cuba, and President Obama has asked the Congress to do just that. As discussed in previous posts, various bills to end the embargo have been introduced in this Session of the Congress, and supporters of normalization or reconciliation of the two countries, like this blogger, urge the Congress to approve such bills as soon as possible.

Such congressional action is in the U.S. national interest because the embargo has failed for over 50 years to produce positive change in Cuba, the embargo clearly has harmed or damaged the island’s economy, and Cuba has insisted on its removal as a key requirement for full normalization of relations.

In addition, there are at least two additional reasons for ending the embargo that this blogger has not seen mentioned in all the public discussion of this issue.

  • First, last October at the U.N. General Assembly Cuba alleged that the damage to Cuba from the embargo or blockade totaled $1.1 trillion, and the longer the embargo remains in effect that number will only increase. For a U.S. business this would require at least a footnote to its balance sheet identifying this as a contingent liability and explaining whatever reasons the business has for challenging the claim or the alleged amount of the claim. The rational action for such a business would be to terminate the conduct allegedly causing the damage, especially when it is not producing some benefit to the business.
  • Second, because of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement of last December, other countries, especially the European Union and its members, are accelerating their efforts to obtain beneficial trade arrangements with Cuba. In short, the longer the U.S. waits to end the embargo, the further behind the U.S. will be with respect to competitors from around the world seeking to do business with Cuba.

Wake up, Congress!

5. Altering or Terminating the Cuba-U.S. Lease of Guantanamo Bay?

As previously noted, Foreign Minister Rodriguez at the July 20 reopening of the Cuban Embassy and at the subsequent joint press conference with Secretary Kerry reiterated Cuba’s request or desire to have its lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. terminated and the territory returned to Cuba. Although the Foreign Minister did not set forth any alleged legal basis for this claim, he did mention that the 1906 lease occurred during a period of U.S. military occupation of the island that “led to the usurpation of [this] piece of Cuban territory”and thereby suggested that the lease was unfairly or coercively obtained.

Interestingly Rodriguez did not mention a previous legal theory advanced by the Fidel Castro regime: that the lease purportedly runs in perpetuity and, therefore, is illegal under Cuban law. Nor did Rodriguez mention another theory for ending the lease: the U.S. operation of a prison/detention facility at Guantanamo that allegedly is not permitted by the lease and, therefore, the U.S. has breached the lease.[15]

At that same joint press conference, Secretary Kerry immediately rejected U.S. willingness to return Guantanamo to Cuba. However, there were caveats in his comment: he said, At this time, there is no discussion and no intention on our part at this moment to alter the existing lease“ and “I can’t tell you what the future will bring but for the moment that is not part of the discussion on our side.” (Emphasis added.) This was reiterated, with similar qualifications, on July 22 by National Security Advisor Susan Rice at a White House press conference.[16] She said, “We’ve been clear that we’re not, at this stage, at all interested in changing the nature of our understanding and arrangements on Guantanamo.  And they may choose to raise it, but we’ve been equally clear that, for us, that’s not in the offing at the present.” (Emphasis added.) Do these caveats indicate an U.S. willingness in the future to discuss altering or even terminating the lease? I could understand a lease amendment increasing the amount of the rent and perhaps making administrative changes, but would be surprised if the U.S. would be willing to discuss termination of the lease and returning Guantanamo to Cuba.[17]

Although Cuba has not mentioned the U.S. operation of a detention facility at Guantanamo and the alleged U.S. torture of some of the detainees as a reason for Cuba’s desire to have the territory returned, it should be noted that President Obama has been trying to close that facility since the start of his first term.

On July 22, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirmed “that the administration is, in fact, in the final stages of drafting a plan to safely and responsibly close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and to present that plan to Congress. That has been something that our national security officials have been working on for quite some time, primarily because it is a priority of the President.  He believes it’s in our clear national security interest for us to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.” Earnest also said the President has decided to veto a defense spending bill now being negotiated in Congress if it includes provisions that would make it harder to close the prison.[18]

A few more details about the plan to close the detention facility were offered on July 25 by Lisa Monaco, one of Obama’s top national security aides, who said that such a plan was nearing completion. It will call for the U.S. to step up the transfers of 52 detainees cleared for resettlement in other countries and for the transfer to U.S. “Supermax” or military prisons for trials or continued military detention of at least some of the other 64 detainees still at Guantanamo who are deemed too dangerous to release. Efforts will be made to reduce the size of the latter group through “periodic review boards” that have been used to clear others for transfer.[19]

6. Ending U.S. Radio and TV Marti?

Another Cuban request is for the U.S. to stop its radio and TV broadcasts aimed at Cuba (Radio and TV Marti), again mentioned on July 20 by Minister Rodriguez. On July 22 National Security Advisor Rice stated, apparently in response to this request, the U.S. ”will continue to say and do what we think is appropriate to advance our interests in human rights and democracy in Cuba. . . . we’re not going to change just because the Cuban government may wish that we did.”

7. Ending USAID and Other Covert U.S. “Democracy” Programs in Cuba?

Prior posts have discussed recent “discreet” or covert programs in Cuba operated by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) through private contractors purportedly to promote democracy in Cuba and the latter’s objections to same. Rodriguez in his July 20 speech did not specifically mention such programs, but did so indirectly by objecting to the U.S. seeking “obsolete and unjust goals” (i.e., regime change) by “a mere change in the methods.”

These prior posts have expressed this blogger’s objections to such USAID programs. The New York Times has done the same.

8. Cuba Returning U.S. Fugitives?

Although not specifically mentioned last week by Secretary Kerry or Minister Rodriguez, the issue of Cuba’s returning U.S. fugitives remains a top priority for many in Congress and in the U.S. generally. On July 24 Representative Jerry McNerney (Dem., CA) raised the issue with respect to Charles Hill, who is the sole surviving member of a group who hijacked an airliner in 1971; Hill and two others were fleeing charges relating to the killing of a New Mexico state trooper. McNerney, who was on that hijacked airliner, wants Hill to be returned to the U.S.[20]

9. Nominating and Confirming U.S. Ambassador to Cuba?

With respect to congressional threats to not provide funds for the U.S. embassy in Cuba and to not confirm an ambassador to that country, Kerry observed, “it always matters when Congress is sort of stepping in the way of something being able to . . . be fully effected. . . . [W]hy are they going to do that? Are they going to do that because the [old] policy [purportedly] has been so successful? Are they going to do that because they can show so much change that’s taken place in the last 60 years that this is a crazy path? . . . [It] just doesn’t make sense to prevent our diplomats from carrying the message . . . [of human rights and democracy]. To not be able to meet with more people in Cuba to know what is going on is a huge cutoff of opportunity. So I just think it’s cutting off your nose to spite your face and it’s a shame.”

Kerry also said, “Well, it depends on whom, obviously, the next president is, and we don’t know that now. So you can’t bet on it that way. You have to do what you think is right. You have to do what’s appropriate and make the difference. Nobody can guard against every eventuality of the future. But I believe the President has taken an irreversible step. I do not believe a next president, Republican or Democrat, will change it.”

Conclusion

The time has come for all U.S. citizens to support full normalization of our relations with Cuba!

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[1] Center for Democracy in Americas, Flag Poles to Public Opinion Polls—Is Congress (Finally) Getting the Message (July 24, 2015)

[2] The Senate Committee on July 23 voted, 18 to 12, to lift the “decades-long ban on travel to Cuba . . . . to block enforcement of a law prohibiting banks and other U.S. businesses from financing sales of U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. . . . [and] to lift restrictions on vessels that have shipped goods to Cuba from returning to the U.S. until six months have passed.” A journalist asserted, “The panel’s votes reflect growing sentiment, even among some GOP conservatives, to ease the five-decade-plus Cuba trade embargo and travel restrictions to the island, which have failed to move the Castro regime toward democracy.” (Assoc. Press, GOP-Controlled Senate Panel Votes to Life Cuba Travel Ban, N.Y. Times (July 24, 2015); Davis, Senate Panel Takes Small Step Toward Easing Travel Restrictions with Cuba, N.Y. Times (July 23, 2015); Shabad, GOP-led Senate panel votes to lift travel ban to Cuba, The Hill (July 23, 2015).) This move in the Senate Appropriations Committee is part of a Democratic Senators’ strategy of attacking House riders in appropriation bills that imperil U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. (Shabad, Dems show their hand in budget poker, The Hill (July 26, 2015),)

[3] Menendez, Menendez Statement on Cuban Embassy Opening (July 20, 2015;    Ros-Lehtinen, Opening of Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. Harms Our National Security, Says Ros-Lehtinen (July 20, 2015); Diaz-Balart, Embassy in Washington, D.C. Will Represent the Castros, Not the Cuban People (July 20, 2015).

[4] Reuters, Cuban-American Resistance to Diplomatic Thaw Proves Tepid, N.Y.Times (July 21, 2015); Assoc. Press, Poll: Majority of Americans Favor Diplomatic Ties With Cuba, N.Y. Times (July 21, 2015); Reuters Video, Cubans enthusiastic about reopening of U.S. embassy in Havana, N.Y. Times (July 21, 2015).

[5] Klobuchar, News Release: Klobuchar: Opening of Cuban Embassy Marks Next Chapter in Relationship (July 20, 2015).

[6] Engage Cuba, Statement from Engage Cuba on Official Opening of U.S. and Cuba Embassies (July 20, 2015).

[7] Elizalde, John Dinges on Cuba-US relations: ‘I’m optimistic,’ CubaDebate (July 23, 2015)

[8] Gonzalez, Letter to Editor: Effects of Our Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (July 24, 2015)

[9] Carney, GOPer doubles down on pledge to block Obama on Cuba, The Hill (July 20, 2015).

[10] Dep’t of State, [John Kerry] Interview with Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio (July 20, 2015); Dep’t of State, [John Kerry] Interview with Andrea Mitchell of NBC News (July 20, 2015).

[11] This blogger disagrees with Kerry’s saying Congress had a role in deciding to recognize a foreign government; such a congressional role appears to be unconstitutional in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that the president has the exclusive constitutional authority to recognize foreign governments.

[12] Speech presented by Army General Raúl Castro Ruz: ‘We will continue the process of transformations in Cuban society at our own pace, CubaDebate (July 15, 2015.

[13] Editorial, Formal Restoration of Diplomatic Ties with Cuba Is Just a Beginning, N.Y. Times (July 20, 2015).  The Washington Post, on the other hand, continued its opposition to normalization with Cuba with an editorial that focused on the human rights problems in Cuba and urging our diplomats to concentrate on those issues. (Editorial, U.S. diplomats in Cuba would do well to focus on human rights, Wash. Post (July 20, 2015).) As Secretary Kerry emphasized in his remarks, the U.S. continues to concentrate on those issues.

[14] Assoc. Press, Cuban Dissidents Feel Sidelined as Focuses on State Ties, N.Y. Times (July 23, 2015).

[15] A prior post suggested that Cuba’s best argument for terminating the lease was the U.S. operation of the prison/detention facility. However, Dr. Michael Strauss, an expert on this lease, asserts that at least in 2002 Cuba offered to facilitate U.S. transportation of detainees to Guantanamo; such conduct should weaken, if not demolish, such an argument for Cuba. (Strauss, Cuba and State Responsibility for Human Rights at Guantanamo Bay, 37 So. Ill. Univ. L.J. 533, 546 (2013).)

[16] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/22/15.

[17] A prior post discussed these issues about the Guantanamo lease and recommended that the parties submit any unresolved disputes about the lease to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in the Netherlands.

[18] Assoc. Press, White House Finishing Up Latest Plan for Closing Guantanamo, N.Y. Times (July 22, 2015) Guantanamo, N.Y. Times (July 22, 2015).

[19] Reuters, Some Guantanamo Inmates Would Go to U.S. Under New Plan: Obama Aide, N.Y. Times (July 26, 2015)

[20] Hattem, House Dem demands fugitives in Cuba be returned to the U.S., The Hill (July 24, 2015). A prior post explored the issues regarding extradition under a U.S.-Cuba treaty on the subject and recommended submitting any unresolved disputes about extradition to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.

New York Times Criticizes USAID’s Efforts To Promote Regime Change in Cuba

On November 10, 2014, the New York Times published its latest editorial in its series “Cuba: A New Start.”[1] Under the title, “In Cuba, Misadventures in Regime Change,” this editorial focuses on criticizing the efforts by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to promote regime change in Cuba and recommending “stronger [U.S.] diplomatic relations” with Cuba as a more productive way to try “to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society.”

The editorial also recommends that the U.S. “should find ways to empower ordinary Cubans by expanding study-abroad programs, professional exchanges and investment in the new small businesses cropping up around the island. [The U.S.] should continue to promote Internet connectivity, but realize that accomplishing that goal on a large scale will require coordination with the Cuban government.”

The editorial’s foundation is the following set of documented factual assertions:

  • In 1996, the U.S. enacted the Helms-Burton Act that spelled out “a strategy to overthrow the government in Havana and ‘assist the Cuban people in regaining their freedom.’”This statute “has served as the foundation for the $264 million the United States has spent in the last 18 years trying to instigate democratic reforms on the island.”
  • “During the final years of the Clinton administration, the [U.S.] spent relatively little on programs in Cuba under . . . [this statute].”
  • That changed when George W. Bush came to power in 2001 with an ambitious aim to bring freedom to oppressed people around the world.” USAID, “better known for its humanitarian work than cloak-and-dagger missions, became the primary vehicle for pro-democracy work in Cuba, where it is illegal.”
  • “In the early years of the [George W.] Bush administration, spending on initiatives to oust the [Cuban]government surged from a few million a year to more than $20 million in 2004. Most contracts were awarded, without much oversight, to newly formed Cuban-American groups. One used funds on a legally questionable global lobbying effort to persuade foreign governments to support America’s unpopular embargo. Other grantees sent loads of comic books to the American diplomatic mission in Havana, bewildering officials there. The money was also used to buy food and clothes, but there was no way to track how much reached relatives of political prisoners, the intended recipients.”
  • “According to a November 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office, one contractor used the pro-democracy money to buy ‘a gas chain saw, computer gaming equipment and software (including Nintendo Game Boys and Sony PlayStations), a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat and Godiva chocolates,’ purchases . . . [the contractor] was unable to justify to auditors.”
  • “The G.A.O. probe led . . . [USAID] to start awarding more funds to established development organizations, including some that pitched bold initiatives. In 2008, Congress appropriated $45 million for the programs, a record amount.”
  • In December 2009 Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen, went on his fifth trip to the island posing as a tourist but acting on behalf of an USAID contractor to smuggle communications equipment to Jewish groups in Cuba. Gross was arrested, charged and convicted by a Cuban court for violating Cuban law and sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment.[2]
  • “At the time [of Gross’ arrest], many senior State Department officials were not fully aware of the scope and nature of the covert programs, . . . and some argued that the covert programs were counterproductive and should be stopped. But Cuban-American lawmakers fought vigorously to keep them alive.”
  • “After Mr. Gross’s arrest, [USAID] . . . stopped sending American [citizens] into Cuba, but it allowed its contractors to recruit Latin Americans for secret missions that were sometimes detected by the Cuban intelligence services.”
  • “An investigation by The Associated Press published in April [2014] revealed . . . [that between] 2009 and 2012, Creative Associates International, a Washington firm, built a rudimentary text messaging system similar to Twitter, known as ZunZuneo, Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet. It was supposed to provide Cubans with a platform to share messages with a mass audience, and ultimately be used to assemble ‘smart mobs.’” Although the contractor paid “text-messaging fees to the Cuban telecommunications company, [the contractor] never found a way to make the platform self-sustaining.”[3]
  • A second A.P. report revealed in August [2014] that U.S.A.I.D. had been sending young Latin Americans to Cuba to identify ‘potential social change actors,’ under the pretext of organizing gatherings like an H.I.V. prevention workshop. The contractors, also hired by Creative Associates, received quick pointers on how to evade Cuban intelligence and were paid as little as $5.41 an hour for work that could have easily landed them in prison.”[4]
  • Although the “American money has provided food and comfort to some relatives of political prisoners, and been used to build limited access to satellite-based Internet connections, . . . it has done more to stigmatize than to help dissidents.”
  • “Far from accomplishing . . . the goal [of instigating democratic reforms on the island], the initiatives have been largely counterproductive. The funds have been a magnet for charlatans, swindlers and good intentions gone awry. The stealthy programs have increased hostility between the two nations, provided Cuba with a trove of propaganda fodder and stymied opportunities to cooperate in areas of mutual interest.”

As previous posts to this blog have discussed, I concur in this editorial’s criticisms of the USAID covert efforts to promote regime change in Cuba and the editorial’s recommendations for changes in U.S. policies regarding the island nation.

I take exception, however, to the editorial’s unexamined assertion that Cuba has “one of the most repressive governments in the world.” Although I am confident that Cuba ideally should have a more open society and hope that it continues to move in that direction, all of us in the U.S. should try to put ourselves in the shoes of the Cubans.

For decades the immensely more powerful U.S. has openly engaged in hostile policies and actions against the small, poor and militarily weak island. This includes the U.S.-supported and unsuccessful 1961 “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba; the threatened U.S. bombing and invasion of Cuba in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis; the recently revealed 1976 military plans to “clobber” Cuba that were being prepared by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; the half-century U.S. embargo of Cuba; and the very USAID covert efforts to promote regime change in Cuba that are discussed in this editorial. If we in the U.S. were in this situation, we too would, I am confident, impose restrictions on an open society. Have we not done this very thing in our response to the 9/11 attacks and the threats of international terrorism?

As I said in an earlier post about U.S. policies regarding Cuba, all of us should remember that when the scribes and Pharisees confronted Jesus with a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery and asked Jesus what he had to say when the law of Moses said stone her, Jesus responded, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:3-7)

Likewise, the President and all of us should also remember these other words of Jesus (Matthew 7:1-5):

  • “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 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.”

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[1] Prior posts have discussed the recent Times’ editorials urging U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, commending Cuba’s efforts to combat Ebola in West Africa, recognizing changes in U.S. public opinion about Cuba and recommending an U.S.-Cuba prisoner exchange.

[2] An earlier Times editorial urged the U.S. and Cuba negotiate an exchange of Mr. Gross for three Cubans in U.S. prisons.

[3] Prior posts to this blog on April 4,  9 and 9, 2014, discussed the AP investigation of the USAID social media program.

[4] Prior posts (August 12, 13 and 14, 2014) examined the AP investigation of the USAID “use” of Latin Americans to open HIV-AIDS clinics in Cuba.

Another USAID Effort To Promote Regime Change in Cuba: Other Reactions

On August 4th, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had funded and implemented a program in 2010-2012 to attract young Cubans for purported civic programs on the island with the real purpose of recruiting them to anti-government activism.

Prior posts looked at the AP’s account of this program and the U.S. government’s reactions. Now we discuss the reactions of others.

A number of U.S. NGOs interested in U.S.-Cuba relations criticized the program. For example, the Latin American Working Group, one of the nation’s longest-standing coalitions of over 60 major religious, humanitarian, grassroots and policy organizations, said, “Programs like this greatly hamper efforts to restore relations between the United States and Cuba. The ‘Travelers Project’ not only delegitimizes global healthcare programs, but erodes trust in the U.S. Government both abroad and at home. This program has cost the United States a considerable amount of money and credibility and is a great setback to productive and respectful engagement with Cuba.”

According to Professor William L. LeoGrande, American University of Washington, D.C., “Cuba already has the best HIV/AIDS prevention program and the lowest incidence rate in Latin America. Or that everywhere else in the world, USAID’s laudable work on HIV/AIDS is conducted openly in partnership with the host government. The program in Cuba is obviously not about HIV/AIDS at all. That was just the cover story — “the perfect excuse,” as one of the program documents called it — for the real goal of recruiting “potential social change actors.”

LeoGrande added that the program was secret, covert and undercover under “the common sense meaning” of those words and that the USAID contrary position was absurd. Moreover, this and other USAID Cuba programs “have demonstrated a clear pattern of knowingly putting innocent people at serious legal risk in Cuba by involving them in subversive activity without their knowledge. That is morally reprehensible, indefensible, and sufficient reason by itself to de-fund these programs once and for all. . . . The other clear pattern these programs exhibit is comical incompetence.”

Similar criticisms were voiced by the following:

  • Pan-American Post: criticism of USAID’s use of HIV clinics as a front, confusing Cubans’ complaints with willingness to rebel against the government and providing minimal training for the people it secretly sent to Cuba;
  • Andrew Breiner of the ThinkProgress blog: U.S. using health programs in several foreign countries for ulterior purposes leads to distrust of health workers in foreign countries;
  • Phil Peters, President of the Cuba Research Center, condemns USAID’s lack of responsibility and disrespect for the Cuban citizens that are unknowingly swept into the agency’s poorly organized secret operations and USAID’s denial that the program was covert; and
  • Charles Kenny, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development said the use of an HIV workshop as a front for political subversion will “only make the distrust worse” in many of the places where the agency operates and potentially damage U.S.-Latin America cooperation in the face of global challenges such as the current Ebola outbreak.

Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations understandingly objected to this USAID program. It said, the program “reconfirms that the [U.S.] government has not renounced its hostile, interventionist strategy in Cuba, meant to create destabilizing situations and provoke change in our political order, and to which millions of dollars are destined every year. The [U.S.] government must immediately end all subversive, illegal undercover operations in Cuba, which violate of our sovereignty and the express will of the Cuban people to perfect our economic and social model, and consolidate our democracy.”

A similar statement was released by the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – Free Trade Agreement of the Peoples (ALBA-TCP), whose members are Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia and Venezuela.

On the other hand, some of the Costa Rican and Venezuelan participants in the program denied that the purpose of the program was to foment a revolution against the Cuban government.

As of August 13th, no comment on this program has been made by Creative Associates International, the private contractor that operated the program for USAID. In fact, the company’s website does not mention Cuba at all.

Conclusion

One does not promote democracy and human rights by using antidemocratic and anti-human rights tactics like this USAID program. It is immoral and stupid.

In fact, programs like this reinforce Cuban limits on dissent. When a small and poor country like Cuba faces covert subversion programs and long-term hostility from its vastly superior, militarily and economically, neighbor to the north, that small country has to be vigilant in its own self-defense and self-preservation. If the U.S. really wanted to improve democracy and human rights in Cuba, the U.S. would enter into good-faith negotiations with Cuba to end the U.S. embargo of the island and resolve a multitude of other issues leading to reconciliation and restoration of normal diplomatic relations.[1]

Finally the U.S. assertion that this and other USAID Cuban programs are not secret, covert and undercover is nothing but Orwellian gobbledygook.

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[1] A prior post from 2011 argued for such reconciliation and another from 2012 did so in an open letter to President Obama.

Another USAID Effort To Promote Regime Change in Cuba: U.S. Government’s Reactions

As discussed in a prior post, on August 4th, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had funded and implemented a program in 2010-2012 to attract young Cubans for purported civic programs on the island with the real purpose of recruiting them to anti-government activism.

Now we will look at the U.S. government’s responses to the article. Another post will discuss the reactions of others.

  1. USAID

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On August 4th, USAID issued a statement that admitted the existence of the program. It said that with congressional funding, the agency had conducted this program under the umbrella of “democracy programming in Cuba to empower Cubans to access more information and strengthen civil society.” This “is important to [USAID’s] mission to support universal values, end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies,” especially in countries like Cuba that do not enjoy the “right to speak freely, assemble and associate without fear, and freely elect political leaders.” Thus, said USAID, the AP article was correct in its assertion that the purpose of the program was “to empower citizens to ‘tackle a community or social problem, win a ‘small victory’ and ultimately realize that they could be the masters of their own destiny.’”

Yet USAID denied that the program was secret, covert or undercover. In countries like Cuba that are closed and hostile to the U.S., the USAID programs are conducted with ”discretion.”

In fact, the USAID statement continued, information about USAID’s Cuba programs, is available publicly at foreignassistance.gov. That website, however, does not provide any information about this specific program or any other such program in Cuba.

Instead, it says the State Department and USAID provides assistance to Cuba that “will support civil society initiatives that promote democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms, particularly freedom of expression. Programs will provide humanitarian assistance to victims of political repression and their families; strengthen independent Cuban civil society; and promote the flow of uncensored information to, from, and within the island.” The website also provides the following aggregated information (in millions of dollars) about such programs for Cuba:

 

FY Appropriated      [1] Obligated [2] Spent [3]
2009 [$15.0] $13.5 $12.2
2010 $20.0 $ 8.9 $11.0
2011 $20.0 $ 9.6 $ 7.7
2012 $20.0 $ 8.3 $ 8.2
2013 $19.3 $ 9.0 $ 7.3
2014 $15.0 $ 1.8
2015 $20.0

The website also provides “disaggregated” data that shows an expenditure in 2013 of $171,700 to Creative Associates International for “Professional, administrative and support services.” There was no disclosure of the program mentioned above or of the Cuban social media program conducted for USAID by Creative Associates International that was discussed in prior posts.[4]

On August 7th USAID updated its own webpage titled “Cuba-Our Work.” It states, “USAID focuses on increasing the ability of Cubans to participate in civic affairs and improve human rights conditions on the island. By reaching out to the dissident community and beyond and engaging citizens to enhance local leadership skills, strengthen organizational capacity, facilitate outreach strategies, and support greater access to information and communication, the USAID program contributes to the development of independent civil society groups that can ultimately make significant contributions at the local and national levels.”

According to the “Cuba-Our Work” webpage, these programs focus on (a) humanitarian support to political prisoners and their families; (b) facilitating the free flow of information; and (c) Human rights and democracy promotion. The last of these three involves “USAID [support of] independent civic, social, and development activities by providing technical and material assistance to organize, train, and energize small groups of people within their communities. These efforts provide an opportunity for citizens to work together in a manner independent from the state. USAID also provides trainings on documenting human rights abuses according to international standards and raises awareness of such abuses within Cuba and around the world.”

That same webpage lists seven “current program partners:” Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia, International Relief and Development, International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, New America Foundation and Pan-American Development Foundation. Note that Creative Associates International is not mentioned.

  1. State Department

USDeptStatesealOn August 4th a U.S. State Department spokesperson also defended the program that was the subject of the AP report. She said, “Congress . . . funds democracy program in Cuba to empower Cubans to access more information and strengthen civil society. This [HIV] workshop . . . enabled support for Cuban civil society while providing a secondary benefit of addressing the desires Cubans express for information and training about HIV prevention.” There also were “community cleanups, cultural activities, tree plantings.” Programs in countries like Cuba are operated in a discreet manner to help ensure the safety of those involved . . . . This was not a covert program. There are programs that are done discreetly in order to protect the safety of the people involved.”

  1. Senator Robert Menendez
Senator Robert Menendez
Senator Robert Menendez

Menendez (Democrat—NJ, a Cuban-American and Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) said, “I stand in full support of [USAID] and its efforts to empower Cuban civil society.  Initiatives that facilitate community education and organizing are an important step towards addressing the social, political and economic challenges facing Cubans today, and who are denied access to an independent media and basic civic interaction.  Moreover, I reaffirm that these programs are consistent with more than a half-century of effort by the [U.S.] Government to promote democracy, human rights and universal values around the world.”

Menendez also commended “the young activists from across Latin America who traveled to Cuba to engage their peers in broad discussions about shaping their future and the future of the country.  It is my sincere hope that Latin American governments will follow the examples set by these courageous activists and will stand in support of the Cuban people – both young and old.”

  1. Senator Patrick Leahy.
Senator Patrick Leahy
Senator Patrick Leahy

Leahy (Democrat-VT and chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees USAID) said, “It is one thing to support nascent Cuban civil society organizations, if USAID’s role is disclosed in advance to participants and beneficiaries. It is quite another to concoct an HIV/AIDS workshop to promote a political agenda. If that is what happened here it is worse than irresponsible. It may have been good business for USAID’s contractor, but it tarnishes USAID’s long track record as a leader in global health.”

  1. Senator Jeff Flake

Unknown-2Flake (Republican-Arizona) said, “”These programs are in desperate need of adult supervision. If you are using an AIDS workshop as a front for something else, that’s … just wrong.”

  1. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

 

Ros-Lehtinen (Republican-FL and a Cuban-American) said, “USAID . . . [use of] measures to promote democracy in Cuba is no secret. We must continue to pressure the Castro regime and support the Cuban people, who are oppressed on a daily basis. I wish the press would dedicate more of their time to reporting the rampant human rights abuses in Cuba perpetrated by the Castro regime instead of manipulating the coverage of programs promoting freedom of expression and justice on the island.”

7. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart

Diaz-Balart (Republican-FL and a Cuban-American) said, “Efforts by the State Department and USAID to bring information to the Cuban people, and to find creative ways for the Cuban people to communicate with each other and with the outside world, are precisely the types of activities that the United States must vigorously pursue in closed societies. . . .Pro-democracy activities must be undertaken with discretion because the most innocuous acts are ‘crimes’ in totalitarian states. It is outrageous that the AP abandoned all pretense of objectivity and published an overtly biased hit piece against a program that enjoys broad bipartisan support.”

  1. Congresswoman Barbara Lee
Rep. Barbara Lee
Rep. Barbara Lee

Lee (Democrat-CA) said, “I am appalled by recent reports that the U.S. government orchestrated and funded clandestine democracy promotion efforts under the guise of public health and civic programs . . . . As co-chair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, I am particularly concerned by the revelation that HIV-prevention programs were used as a cover. This blatant deception undermines U.S. credibility abroad and endangers U.S. government supported public health programs which have saved millions of lives in recent years around the world.

Lee also commented, “These most recent reports are particularly disturbing in light of USAID’s [Cuban social media program] fiasco first reported a few months ago. Such misguided and counterproductive programs have no place at USAID and stand to put more U.S. citizen lives at risk. Instead of this covert approach to democracy promotion; it’s long past time for American and Cuban officials to make a serious commitment to enter into open

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[1]  The foreignassistance.gov website reports that these are Appropriations for all agencies, including USAID. An USAID website says that $55.0 million was appropriated for all agencies’ Cuba programs for FY 2009-2011 and that USAID was responsible for $31.0 of those funds.

[2] The foreignassistance.gov website reports that USAID received all of the Obligated funds for these years.

[3] The foreignassistance.gov website reports that USAID spent all of the Spent funds for these years.

[4] Post, U.S. Secret Cuba Social Media Program Raises Questions about the Validity of Criticisms of Cuba by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (April 4, 2014); Post, U.S. Senate Hearing Discusses USAID’s Social Media Program for Cuba (April 9, 2014); Re-post of the Latin American Working Group, What Is Wrong with the White House’s Plan for Democracy in Cuba (April 9, 2014).

Yet Another USAID Effort To Promote Regime Change in Cuba

On August 4th, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had funded and implemented a program in 2010-2012 to attract young Cubans for purported civic programs on the island with the real purpose of recruiting them to anti-government activism.

We will look at the AP’s account of this program, and subsequent posts will examine reactions to this account from the U.S. government and others.

According to the AP, USAID through a private contractor, Creative Associates International,[1] recruited nearly a dozen young people from Costa Rica, Peru and Venezuela to go to Cuba as purported tourists. Once there, they conducted a HIV workshop and visited Cuban universities. Their mission, says the AP, was “to recruit [young Cubans] with the long-term goal of turning them against their government.”

The purported tourist who organized the HIV workshop said in a report that it was “the perfect excuse” for the treatment of “the underlying theme” of generating “a network of volunteers for social transformation.”

After visiting two universities in two cities, the purported tourists identified a “target group” of students they thought both opposed the government and had organizational skills.” Their report about these visits “describe the students and their facilities in great detail, noting complaints and fairness issues that might be exploited. Potential recruits were listed by name, and then profiled, their leadership qualities assessed in a spreadsheet.” This report also described “the political culture of the university, including the role of the Union of Communist Youth, and . . . student gripes.” The “students were constantly criticizing the regime,” which, the trip report said, “assures us of having beneficiaries with a clear mind as to the objectives that we are pursuing.”

In a week’s prior training in Costa Rica, Creative Associates International told the purported tourists not to mention the company in Cuba and to keep calm if they were interrogated by Cuban officials. Their written instructions stated, “Although there is never total certainty, trust that the authorities will not try to harm you physically, only frighten you. Remember that the Cuban government prefers to avoid negative media reports abroad, so a beaten foreigner is not convenient for them.” Creative Associates provided the young people with a set of security codes for communicating with the company, but instructed not to use encrypted flash drives stamped conspicuously with the word “IronKey” and to bring personal photos and information in their laptop computers.

After there were indications that the Cuban authorities were at least suspicious about these activities, Creative Associates cancelled the purported tourists’ visits and instead decided to recruit some of the Cuban contacts to obtain Cuban exit permits so that they could go to another country for training, to pay other Cuban “beneficiaries” on the island to run the programs and to have “mules” bring the necessary cash to the island. This approach, however, was not successful.

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[1] Creative Associates also was the private contractor for USAID’s social media program for Cuba that was discussed in a prior post, a re-posting from the Latin American Working Group and another post about a Senate hearing regarding that program.

What is Wrong with the White House’s Plan for Democracy in Cuba?

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[This is a re-posting of a blog post by Zuleika Rivera, an Intern at the Latin American Working Group (April 08, 2014), http://lawg.org/action-center/lawg-blog.]

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ZunZuneo or the “Cuban Twitter” continues to dominate headlines as details regarding U.S. Agency of International Development’s (USAID) failure to inspire a “Cuban Spring” through a “discreetly” funded social networking platform remain unclear. The  Associated Press (AP) first broke the story on April 3, 2014 outlining the parameters of the USAID and Creative Associates International program to develop a bare-bones “Cuban Twitter,” using cell phone text messaging to evade Cuba’s strict control of information and its restrictions of the internet. The idea behind the development of the social media platform, according to AP, was to create a credible news source for Cubans on the island. ZunZuneo drew more than 40,000 followers and gathered data (such as location, cell phone numbers) on its users which was hoped to be used for political purposes. According to the AP, the social network managers hoped to use this information to trigger “smart mobs” that would protest the current Cuban government and generate a “Cuban Spring,” head nodding to the “Arab Spring,” a series of protests and uprisings that swept through a handful of Arab countries from 2010-2013.

How did the United States successfully keep ZunZuneo a secret for so long? USAID used shell companies and foreign banks in the Cayman Islands, United Kingdom, Spain and Costa Rica in order to conduct its programs. USAID contracted with Washington Software Inc who was given $3.2 million to text subscribers of TV and Radio Marti. They were required to send 24,000 messages a week and no fewer than 1,800 an hour. They were also required to create an account and give full access to the Authorized Representative for the contracting officer, the government’s technical experts who are responsible for developing and managing the technical parts of a contract. USAID subcontractor, Creative Associates, received $6.5 million to carry out work in Cuba and later another received $11 million from USAID. The U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors gave to Mobile Accord $60,000, and USAID also gave Mobile Accord $1.69 million to help run ZunZuneo. Similarly, the New America Foundation was given $4.3 million in 2012 under the Open Technology Institute; their role in the program, if any, remains unclear.

Soon after its creation in 2010, ZunZuneo gathered a lot of followers; and when famous Colombian-born singer Juanes hosted his “Peace Concert” in Cuba’s revolutionary plaza, the ZunZuneo took the opportunity to begin collecting data on Cubans. They polled all of their users on their general thoughts on the concert line-up; and as Cubans innocently answered, ZunZuneo gathered their data. In 2010 when ZunZuneo was at its height, they asked a Denver-based mobile company to join in (Mobile Accord). In their article, the Associated Press mentions a Mobile Accord memo that indicates that they were fully aware of their involvement, stating, “There will be absolutely no mention of the United States government involvement. If it is discovered that the platform is, or ever war, backed by the United States government, not only do we risk the channel being shut down by Cubacel [Cuba’s cell phone provider], but we risk the credibility of the platform as a source of reliable information, education, and empowerment in the eyes of the Cuban people.”

At this point Creative Associates had moved all corporations abroad and had made sure there was no money trail leading back to the United States. By 2011 Creative Associates was thinking of expanding their program and had agreed that the management team should not find out the United States government was involved. At this time they asked Mobile Accord to become independent from the United States government; but that became increasingly more difficult to do, as revenue from text messages was not enough. Finally, in September 2012 the program had to be cut, and it disappeared mysteriously from the Cuban landscape.

The White House has said that the program was not covert because they had disclosed the program to Congress and the program was intended to foster the free flow of information amongst Cubans on the island. Congress denies ever knowing about the program. The legality of this program is also in question since according to U.S. law any covert action by a federal agency must have presidential authority and Congress should also be notified. USAID has said that it is a “congressionally mandated and congressionally supported effort” and that it was reviewed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). But the GAO report does not list any programs by name or any specifics about what programs were being carried out. It only says that USAID is conducting programs with “greater focus on information technology to support independent bloggers and developing social network platforms.”

Similar to the White House, USAID said this was a discreet, not covert program. USAID came out with its own statement claiming that much of what was reported is false. While ZunZuneo doesn’t portray the full scope of the Obama Administration’s plan towards democracy promotion in Cuba, it is certainly the ugly side of it.

ZunZuneo proved it had little success in promoting freedom of expression on the island to support a more open civil society through a covert, or “discreet” program; and when compared to the White House’s policy to facilitate cross-cultural communication through people-to-people exchanges, ZunZuneo’s success diminishes to zero. In 2011 President Obama took a big step towards “promoting democracy” in Cuba by easing restrictions on travel for U.S. citizens to Cuba. While Cuba remains a sovereign state with its own political system, the legacy of U.S. policy towards Cuba doesn’t recognize this. The Obama Administration has taken steps to engage Cuba in a different way but still under the guise of “democracy promotion.” The President has liberalized travel regulations for purposeful travel as a way to empower and engage civil society in Cuba and in the United States. Its success was immediate: in 2011 73,500 U.S. citizens traveled legally to Cuba, and in 2012 that number increased to more than 98,000. Since the easing of restrictions, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued more than 250 people-to-people licenses, nine charter companies have been set up and there are more than 20 active travel service providers. People-to-people travel has led to authentic interactions between Cubans and U.S. citizens, which has deconstructed the Cold War image of Cuba as the enemy and presented a more accurate Cuban reality. Current regulations have allowed researchers and students to travel to Cuba, to study Cuba “on the ground,” and come back to the United States ready to share their experiences of a different Cuba, a Cuba that is changing.

People-to-people travel has created a new class of ambassadors: citizen ambassadors that in their exchanges on the island promote the core values of democracy. The exchange of ideas between real people via a different brand of “democracy promotion,” program, such as people-to-people travel, is what will inform Cubans about “democracy,” not spam social messaging. The Obama Administration should focus on initiatives such as un-restricted travel to Cuba for all U.S. citizens, and high level dialogue with the Cuban government to talk about a variety of issues of common interest. These tactics will not only save money from unknowing taxpayers, but educate about U.S. ideals and realities by real people who are not trying to destroy Cuba, in a much clearer, less secret, non-covert manner. Rather than staining USAID’s reputation around the world, and smearing the Obama Administration as cold war re-enactors, the time is long overdue to sever our ties with difficult-to-clarify, “discreet” democracy promotion programs.

ZunZuneo proved to be a failure; the 53-year-old economic embargo on Cuba, another failure, and the list could go on. Cuba is not our enemy, rather our neighbor; and we should begin to treat them as such. Behind closed doors, judgments can be passed; but in the world arena, we should be “keeping up with the Joneses”—the 188 countries that annually vote in the UN General Assembly to end the embargo—and begin on the path toward a respectful, normal relationship with Cuba.

 

 

U.S.’ Secret Cuban Social Media Program Raises Questions about the Validity of Criticisms of Cuba by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

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.”[1]

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

This blog has criticized the Commission’s reports on Cuban religious freedom for 2010, 2011 and 2012.

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.”

Conclusion

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.

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[1] 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.”