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.

President Obama’s Response to This Blog’s Latest Post Urging Normalization of U.S.-Cuban Relations

On October 13th I posted an endorsement of the New York Times’ editorial urging normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations with an elaboration of why such normalization was in the economic interest of the U.S. The next day I sent an email with this blog post to President Barack Obama.

On October 16th I received the following email reply from the President:

  • “Thank you for writing.  Since the beginning of my Administration, I have tried to send a signal that the United States is open to a new relationship with Cuba.  However, the Cuban government must start opening up its country and allowing its people to determine their own destiny.”
  • “All of us who embrace core democratic values and principles seek a Cuba that fully respects the human rights and political and economic aspirations of all its citizens, and I am working to make that goal a reality.  To help reunite divided families, my Administration lifted all restrictions on family members traveling to Cuba.  To enhance contact with the Cuban people and support civil society, we adjusted the policies governing travel for religious, cultural, and educational purposes.  And to expand the economic independence of the Cuban people, I removed remittance restrictions so family members could more easily send money back to Cuba, and I eased the regulations on non‑family remittances.”
  • “We have made these and other changes to let the Cuban government know we are prepared to show flexibility and not stay stuck in an outdated Cold War mentality.  At the same time, we need to see signs from the Cuban government that it is prepared to lift its rigid restrictions on the freedoms of the Cuban people, such as releasing political prisoners, respecting freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and otherwise adhering to recognized human rights norms.  As long as I am President, I will always be prepared to modify our Cuba policy, including our embargo, if such changes will further the cause of liberty in Cuba.”
  • “Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts.  Please know my Administration will remain steadfast in our outreach to the Cuban people, in providing humanitarian assistance, and in seeking to advance Cubans’ legitimate desire to freely determine their country’s future.”

This response obviously is a canned document. It does not address the blog’s specific arguments for ending the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” or for ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba or for re-establishing normal relations with the island. Nor does it address the serious adverse economic consequences for the U.S. of continuing the obsolete, counterproductive and harmful policies regarding Cuba.

Yes, the Obama Administration has eased restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling there and remitting money to Cubans. But any U.S. concern about the civil rights of the Cuban people fails to recognize that positive changes have been happening on the island and that further progress on such issues can more effectively happen in respectful, bilateral negations between the two countries to resolve many problems that have arisen during this too-long period of hostility by the U.S. Moreover, the President’s attitude ignores the many problems of civil rights in the U.S., the recent USAID undercover efforts to promote regime change in Cuba and the universally condemned U.S. embargo of the island

As a result, the President and 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.”