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.

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.