U.S. Covert or “Discreet” Democracy Promotion Programs in Cuba

Previous posts have discussed misguided covert or “discreet” U.S. democracy promotion programs in Cuba through the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).[1] This is still happening as revealed in a recent hearing before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.[2]

On April 26, the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere heard testimony regarding this and other issues from Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State, Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bureau; Francisco Palmieri, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; and Elizabeth Hogan, Acting Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean, USAID.

Highlights of Hearing

Thomas Malinowski [3]

Malinowski’s prepared direct testimony was focused on how the Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bureau (DRL) “works to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms in closed societies . . . through the Human Rights and Democracy Fund (HRDF) . . . [which] has grown from $8 million in FY 1998 to $88.5 million in FY 2016.” This past year there were almost 350 such grants “totaling almost $500 million that benefit civil society and activists around the world in their struggle for freedom and dignity.” (Emphasis added.)

With respect to Cuba, he testified, the Bureau was “committed to supporting the people of Cuba as they seek the basic freedoms that their government denies. . . . Consistent with . . . [President Obama’s messages to the Cuban people on his recent visit] DRL programs in Cuba respond to the needs and wishes of the Cuban people, by promoting human rights, facilitating the flow of uncensored information, and strengthening independent civil society. Cuban government restrictions on civil and political rights increase the degree of difficulty of program implementation. But despite these challenges, DRL has been able to sustain consistent support to Cuban civil society for the past 10 years, and we will continue to do so with your support. As the President has made clear our new approach to Cuba is not based on the premise that the human rights situation there has improved; rather it is based on the belief that we will be better able to support the demands of the Cuban people if we keep the focus on the Cuban government’s policies rather than allowing the regime to blame American policies for its problems.” (Emphasis added.)

Francisco Palmieri [4]

Palmieri’s prepared direct testimony was devoted to supporting the Department’s “Fiscal Year 2017 foreign assistance request for the Western Hemisphere” of $1.7 billion. This includes “democracy assistance for Cuba and Venezuela, where the United States will continue to provide assistance to advance universal human rights and support vibrant civil society. The request for Cuba continues direct support for civil society. Promotion of democratic principles and human rights remains at the core of U.S. assistance to Cuba.” (Emphasis added.)

Elizabeth Hogan [5]

Hogan testified that USAID is “committed to supporting human rights everywhere we work, including in Cuba and other closing spaces where citizens are arbitrarily detained, threatened, harassed, and beaten for peacefully exercising their fundamental rights.” (Emphasis added.)

Indeed, the USAID website has a page (Last updated April 1, 2016) describing its work in Cuba. 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.” [6]

More specifically, the USAID website says it (a) “provides on-going humanitarian support to political prisoners and their families;” (b) “supports independent civic, social, and development activities by providing technical and material assistance to organize, train, and energize small groups of people within their communities . . . to work together in a manner independent from the state;” and (c) “disseminate[s] books, magazines, newspapers, and pamphlets to broad segments of the population but with an increasing emphasis on promoting the use of social media . . . [with distribution of] laptops to facilitate the sharing of information from USB drives, CDs, and DVDs. “ (Emphasis added.)

To these ends,, the Congress ““appropriated $55 million for Cuba programs between fiscal years 2009-2011; USAID managed nearly $31 million of this amount, while the Department of State managed the remainder. Also, $20 million has been appropriated for fiscal year 2012.”

USAID Inspector General’s Report on Its Cuba Programs

In December 2015 USAID’s Inspector General issued a report criticizing the agency’s programs in Cuba for inadequate monitoring, conflicts of interest and questions of legal responsibility for those involved; and the lack of a policy to protect sensitive work from subversion by Cuban intelligence officials. (Emphasis added.) The 89-page report contained 16 recommendations to improve accountability and prevent conflicts of interest. In response a USAID spokesperson said the agency already had completed several recommendations from the report with the remaining to be finished by July 2016. The spokesperson also noted that the report concluded that its Cuba programs were “consistent with U.S. legislation and designed to support activities ‘that expand the reach and impact of independent civil society in Cuba. [7]

Conclusion

Although the stated goals of the U.S. programs to support democracy in Cuba are laudable, the programs, in my opinion, are not because they are covert or “discreet” as the U.S. bureaucrats like to say because the State Department and USAID are statutorily prohibited from conducting “covert” activities. Yet simultaneously there is general discussion of the programs in the U.S. public record. In short, such programs are antithetical to the promotion of democracy.

Moreover, such programs understandably prompt Cuban authorities to investigate and monitor supposed dissident activities in Cuba, especially given the history of U.S. hostility towards the island and the vastly superior military and economic power of the U.S. Indeed, these U.S. activities prompt the question of whether they are the actual or perceived reasons for Cuba’s reported persecution of dissidents and whether one of the reasons for the U.S. programs is to provoke those very Cuban responses and the subsequent U.S. criticisms, as covered in a recent post.

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[1] U.S. Secret Cuba Social Media Program Raises Questions About the Validity of Criticism of Cuba by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (April 4, 2014); U.S. Senate Hearing Discusses USAID’s Social Media Program for Cuba (April 9, 2014); 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 (Aug. 12, 2014); Another USAID Effort To Promote Regime Change in Cuba: U.S. Government’s Reactions (Aug. 13, 2014); Another USAID Effort To Promote Regime Change in Cuba: Other Reactions (Aug. 14, 2014); New York Times Criticizes USAID’s Efforts To Promote Regime Change in Cuba (Nov. 10, 2014); Email to President Obama Objecting to Covert or “Discreet” U.S. Government Programs Purportedly Promoting Democracy and Human Rights in Cuba (Jan. 7, 2015); Reforming U.S. “Democracy Promotion” Programs in Cuba (Nov. 6, 2015).

[2] U.S. Senate, Foreign Relations Comm., Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues, Review of Resources, Priorities and Programs in the FY 2017 State Department Budget Request (April 26, 2016)  I have not been able to find the actual budget request, which would be interesting to peruse.

[3] Testimony of Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski (April 26, 2016).

[4] Testimony of Francisco Palmieri, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (April 26, 2016). Palmieri also testified that the U.S. was not going to change its “dry feet” policy for admission of Cubans into the U.S.

[5] Prepared Testimony of Elizabeth Hogan (April 26, 2016).

[6] USAID, Cuba—Our Work.

[7] USAID Inspector General Report (Dec. 2015) ( (no longer available online); Assoc. Press, Watchdog: Secret US ‘Cuban Twitter’ Programs Problematic, N.Y. Times (Dec. 23, 2015) (no longer available online); Statement by USAID Spokesman Ben Edwards (Dec. 23, 2015).

 

 

U.S. Annual Human Rights Report Again Criticizes Cuba

On June 25, 2015, the U.S. Department of State released its 2014 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.[1]

Introduction

John Kerry
John Kerry

In introducing the report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “The message at the heart of these reports is that countries do best when their citizens fully enjoy the rights and freedoms to which they are entitled. This is not just an expression of hope. This is a reality, and it is proven out in country after country around the world. After all, we live in a time when access to knowledge and openness to change are absolutely essential. And in such an era, no country can fulfill its potential if its people are held back, or more so if they are beaten down by repression.”

On the other hand, Kerry observed, “There is nothing sanctimonious in this. There is zero arrogance. And we couldn’t help but have humility when we have seen what we have seen in the last year in terms of racial discord and unrest. So we approach this with great self-awareness. But we also understand that when human rightsis the issue, every country, including the United States, has room to improve. And the path to global respect always begins at home.”

The U.S. cares, according to Kerry, “because respect for human rights provides the truest mirror that we have of ourselves, the most objective test of how we have come over the centuries, and how far we still have to go. It is a yardstick by which we can measure life itself. I realize that that is placing a lot of weight on what is, after all, just a report, but I think the description fits. And I hope it will inspire us – people here and around the world – between this year and next to take more steps, hopefully giant steps, in the direction of greater justice, wider decency, and peace.”

Tom Malinowski
Tom Malinowski

Following the Secretary’s remarks, Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, added comments. He said, “the Human Rights Reports demonstrate America’s commitment to human rights, and they’re a tool in their own right in the advancement of those rights. They cover 199 countries and entities. They strive to provide a comprehensive and factual review of conditions around the world. They are also the most widely read document that we put out at the State Department every single year. And I think that just reminds us that what America says about human rights around the world – just the words – matters greatly.”

Malinowski also addressed the section of the report on Cuba. He said, “But on Cuba . . ., one of our sayings here is that engagement is not the same thing as endorsement. . . . [It] should be crystal-clear, that our opening to Cuba . . . was designed because we felt that the new policy is better suited to promoting human rights in Cuba than the old policy. . . . [The] opening was associated very closely with the release of over 50 political prisoners in Cuba. The situation needs to get far better before any of us can say that we are where we want to be, but we feel that what we have done is to . . . take away the Cuban Government’s ability to say that the problems on the island are the fault of the United States and the embargo, and to put the focus where it belongs – on their actions and on their policies.”

Malinowski continued, “[We] did see a fairly dramatic decision by the Cuban Government to release the vast majority of political prisoners . . . [about whom] we had been raising concern . . . for some time. We have not yet seen a letup in the kind of day-to-day harassment that civil society activists face in Cuba. Short-term arrests, unfortunately, have continued. I am not particularly surprised about that. We, in fact, I think, expected that precisely because the Cuban Government would be nervous about the implications of the opening, that in the short term they might actually intensify a crackdown. We very firmly believe that in the long run . . . this is going to put us in a much stronger position to promote human rights and to stand by civil society on the island.”

The Report on Cuban Human Rights

The Executive Summary of the extensive report on Cuban human rights for 2014 stated, “Cuba is an authoritarian state led by Raul Castro, who is president of the council of state and council of ministers, Communist Party (CP) first secretary, and commander in chief of security forces. The constitution recognizes the CP as the only legal party and “the superior leading force of society and of the state.” A CP candidacy commission preapproved all candidates for the February 2013 uncontested National Assembly elections, which were neither free nor fair. The national leadership, including members of the military, maintained effective control over the security forces.”

“The principal human rights abuses included those involving the abridgement of the ability of citizens to change the government and the use of government threats, extrajudicial physical assault, intimidation, violent government-organized counter-protests against peaceful dissent, and harassment and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly.”[2]

“The following additional abuses continued: short-term, arbitrary unlawful detentions and arrests, harsh prison conditions, selective prosecution, denial of fair trial, and travel restrictions. Authorities interfered with privacy, engaging in pervasive monitoring of private communications. The government did not respect freedom of speech and press, restricted internet access, maintained a monopoly on media outlets, circumscribed academic freedom, and maintained some restrictions on the ability of religious groups to meet and worship. The government refused to recognize independent human rights groups or permit them to function legally. In addition the government continued to prevent workers from forming independent unions and otherwise exercising their labor rights.”

“Most human rights abuses were committed by officials at the direction of the government. Impunity for the perpetrators remained widespread.”

More details are provided in the report itself under the following uniform structure:

1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

A. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

B.  Disappearance

C. Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

D. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

E. Denial of Fair Public Trial

F. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

A. Freedom of Speech and Press

B. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

C. Freedom of Religion

D. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

3. Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change their Government

4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

7. Worker Rights

A.Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

B. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

C. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

D.Discrimination with Respect to Employment or Occupation

E. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Conclusion

This report again demonstrates the State Department’s extensive efforts to collect and report information about human rights conditions in 199 countries of the world, including Cuba. As an observer of such matters over the last years, I believe their reports to be trustworthy.

I, therefore, accept their criticism of Cuban human rights. On the other hand, I believe that everyone needs to understand the well-founded fear that Cuba has of the U.S. as a vastly larger and superior (in so many ways) country that has expressed and acted with hostility toward Cuba over the last 50-plus years. In that context, it is easier to understand, but not applaud, their human rights failures. In my opinion, if and when a sense of trust develops between the two countries as a result of the process of normalization, then I anticipate and hope that Cuba will gradually improve the human rights covered by this report.

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[1] This post is based upon the following: Dep’t of State, 2014 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (June 25, 2015); Dep’t of State, 2014 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Cuba (June 25, 2015); Kerry, Release of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (June 25, 2015); Malinowski, Briefing on the 2014 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (June 25, 2015); Assoc. Press, Amid New Engagements, US Tags Cuba, Iran as Rights Abusers, N.Y. Times (June 25, 2015); Reuters, U.S. Rights Report Slams Cuba and Iran, Despite Greater Links, N.Y. Times (June 25, 2015)

[2] Cuban artist, Tania Bruguera, was arrested last December over a planned “open-mike” event in Havana’s Revolutionary Square. Since then she has been detained four more times and has been barred from leaving the country while facing charges of disturbing the public order, resisting arrest and inciting criminal behavior. Bruguera’s most recent arrests occurred in the middle of Cuba’s biggest art festival — the Havana Biennial — with many of the world’s leading gallery owners and collectors in town. (Miroff, Cuban artist pushed boundary between art and politics, and pays a price, Wash. Post (June 26, 2015).)

 

Cuba and U.S. To Discuss Human Rights

Tom Malinowski
Tom Malinowski

On March 26 Cuba announced that the U.S. and Cuba will commence their discussions regarding human rights on March 31 in Washington, D.C. The next day the U.S. Department of State confirmed that date and location with Under Secretary of State Tom Malinowski as the leader of the U.S. delegation. This meeting’s purpose will be “to discuss the structure and the methodology of future human rights talks” or “the composition of delegations and the topics to be discussed.” [1]

This post will review that announcement, and subsequent posts will provide previews of the issues of Cuban and U.S. human rights that probably will be on the agenda for further talks.

Pedro Luis Pedroso
Pedro Luis Pedroso

Although these negotiations were first suggested by the U.S. as an essential part of the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations, Cuba now is the one apparently pressing the discussion of this issue. A Cuban foreign ministry official, Pedro Luis Pedroso, the Deputy Director General of Multilateral Affairs and International Law, said,”These talks are an indication of Cuba’s willingness to address any subject with the [U.S.], despite our differences, based on equality and reciprocity.”

Pedroso added that the planned dialogue is expected to “develop in a constructive environment and on a reciprocal basis, without conditions or discriminatory treatment, and full respect for the sovereign equality, independence and non-interference in the internal affairs of the parties. There are different political systems and models for democracy. … We live in a plural world and that pluralism should apply to the case of Cuba as well.”

According to Pedroso, Cuba will “demonstrate its achievements in the promotion and protection of all human rights, not only of its people but also those of many nations with which it has cooperated in areas such as health and education.” This includes “the recognition Cuba received at the last Universal Periodic Review by the U.N. Human Rights Council, where the international community commended Cuban achievements in areas such as education, health and access to cultural rights, and the contribution the island has made in those same areas in other countries.”

Nevertheless, Cuba admits that it is not perfect and still has areas to improve.

The talks will not only be concerned with Cuban human rights. Pedroso said Cuba will “raise its concerns regarding the human rights situation in the U.S. and elsewhere where [the U.S.] has a direct impact.”

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[1] This post is based upon the following sources: Reuters, Cuba Proposes Quick Start to Human Rights Dialogue with U.S., N.Y. Times (Mar. 26, 2015); Assoc. Press, Cuba, US to Launch Human Rights Dialogue Tuesday, N.Y. Times (Mar. 26, 2015); Gomez, Cuba and the US hold talks on human rights, Granma (Mar. 27, 2015); Foreign Ministry: Cuba expects respectful dialogue with US Human Rights next March 31, CubaDebate (Mar. 26, 2015); U.S. Dep’t of State, Daily Press Briefing (Mar. 27, 2015).