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.”

======================================================

[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.

New York Times Recommends U.S.-Cuba Prisoner Exchange

U.S. citizen Alan Gross is being held in a Cuban prison after having been tried and convicted by a Cuban court for violating Cuban law while three Cuban citizens are being held in U.S. federal prisons after having been tried and convicted by U.S. federal courts for violating U.S. law. There has been much public and governmental desire in both countries to have their respective citizens released from prisons and returned to their home countries.[1]

On November 3, 2014, a New York Times editorial recommended that the two countries negotiate a prisoner exchange. The editorial first set forth the following lengthy summary of the two sets of prisoners:

  • “Under the direction of Development Alternatives Inc.,which had a contract with the United States Agency for International Development, Mr. Gross traveled to Havana five times in 2009, posing as a tourist, to smuggle communications equipment as part of an effort to provide more Cubans with Internet access. The Cuban government, which has long protested Washington’s covert pro-democracy initiatives on the island, tried and convicted Mr. Gross in 2011, sentencing him to 15 years in prison for acts against the integrity of the state.”
  • “While in prison, Gross has lost more than 100 pounds. He is losing vision in his right eye. His hips are failing. This June, Mr. Gross’s elderly mother died. After he turned 65 in May, Mr. Gross told his loved ones that this year would be his last in captivity, warning that he intends to kill himself if he is not released soon. His relatives and supporters regard that as a serious threat from a desperate, broken man.”
  • Five Cuban men (the so-called “Cuban five”) had “infiltrated Cuban exile groups in Florida” that had “dropped leaflets over the island urging Cubans to rise up against their government.” Four of them “were convicted of non-violent crimes,” and two of these four “have been released and returned home” while the other two of these four who “remain imprisoned are due for release relatively soon.”
  • The remaining U.S. prisoner and the one “who matters the most to the Cuban government, Gerardo Hernández, is serving two life sentences.” He was the leader of the Five and “was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder” in connection with the Cuban military’s shooting down of a civilian plane operated by one of the Cuban exile groups over the unmarked border between Cuban and international waters.
  • “A three-judge panel on the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit overturned the convictions [of all five Cubans] in August 2005, ruling that a ‘perfect storm’ of factors deprived the five defendants of a fair trial. The judges found that widespread hostility toward the Cuban government in Miami and pretrial publicity that vilified the [Cuban]spies made it impossible to impanel an impartial jury.”
  • “The full [11th Circuit] court later reversed the panel’s finding, reinstating the verdict. But the judges raised other concerns about the case that led to a reduction of three of the sentences.” One of the Circuit’s judges, “Phyllis Kravitch, wrote a dissenting opinion arguing that Mr. Hernández’s murder-conspiracy conviction was unfounded. Prosecutors, she argued, failed to establish that Mr. Hernández, who provided Havana with information about the flights, had entered into an agreement to shoot down the planes in international, as opposed to Cuban, airspace. Downing the planes over Cuban airspace, which the exiles had penetrated before, would not constitute murder under American law.”

The editorial then noted that early “in Mr. Gross’s detention, Cuban officials suggested they might be willing to free him if Washington put an end to initiatives designed to overthrow the Cuban government. After those talks sputtered, the Cuban position hardened and it has become clear to American officials that the only realistic deal to get Mr. Gross back would involve releasing [the remaining] three Cuban spies convicted of federal crimes in Miami in 2001.”

Thus, according to the editorial, the key issue now is whether the U.S. Government will agree to such a prisoner exchange, and the editorial argues that the U.S. should do so for the following reasons:

  1. Gross’ “arrest was the result of a reckless strategy in which U.S.A.I.D. has deployed private contractors to perform stealthy missions in a police state vehemently opposed to Washington’s pro-democracy crusade.”
  2. “If Alan Gross died in Cuban custody, the prospect of establishing a healthier relationship with Cuba would be set back for years.
  3. A “prisoner exchange could pave the way toward re-establishing formal diplomatic ties, positioning the United States to encourage positive change in Cuba through expanded trade, travel opportunities and greater contact between Americans and Cubans. Failing to act would maintain a 50-year cycle of mistrust and acts of sabotage by both sides.
  4. “In order to swap prisoners, President Obama would need to commute the [three Cuban] men’s sentences. Doing so would be justified considering the lengthy time they have served, the troubling questions about the fairness of their trial, and the potential diplomatic payoff in clearing the way toward a new bilateral relationship.”

“Officials at the White House are understandably anxious about the political fallout of a deal with Havana, given the criticism they faced in May [of 2014] after five Taliban prisoners were exchanged for [one] American soldier kidnapped in Afghanistan. The American government, sensibly, is averse to negotiating with terrorists or governments that hold United States citizens for ransom or political leverage. But in exceptional circumstances, it makes sense to do so. The Alan Gross case meets that [criterion].”

This editorial is the latest in what the Times itself states is an editorial series on “Cuba: A New Start.” The first editorial was titled “Obama Should End the Embargo on Cuba.” The next in the series actually was “Editorial Observer: Still Pondering U.S.-Cuba Relations, Fidel Castro Responds,” by Ernesto Londoño of the newspaper’s Editorial Board; it noted Fidel Castro’s favorable reaction to the first Times editorial. The second editorial, “Cuba’s Impressive Role on Ebola” (Oct. 19, 2014). The third editorial, “The Shifting Politics of Cuba Policy.” The fourth, also published on November 3rd with Ernesto Londoño’s byline, “Editorial, Alan Gross and the Cuban Five: A Timeline.[2]

===========================================================

[1] This blog previously has discussed the Alan Gross case and the Cuban Five case and urged a prisoner exchange: The U.S. Should Pursue Reconciliation with Cuba (May 21, 2011); Commutation and Release of Convicted Spies (Sept. 24, 2011); Roots of Hope for U.S.-Cuba Relations (Sept. 27, 2011); U.S. and Cuba Discuss Exchange of Prisoners (Oct. 14, 2011); Letter to President Obama Regarding Cuba (Aug. 17, 2012).

[2] This blog previously has commented on three of these editorials: New York Times Urges Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations (Oct. 13, 2014); New York Times Commends Cuba for Fighting Ebola in West Africa and Again Urges U.S.-Cuba Normalization (Oct. 19, 2014); New York Times Again Urges Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations (Oct. 26, 2014). Another post cited Londoño’s article about the U. N. General Assembly ‘s recent vote on the U.S. embargo: U.N. General Assembly Again Condemns U.S. Embargo of Cuba (Oct. 30, 2014). Londoño joined the Times’ Editorial Board in September 2014 after a distinguished career at the Washington Post and the Dallas Morning News. Mr. Londoño , who was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, moved to the U.S. in 1999 to study journalism and Latin American studies at the University of Miami.

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

=============================================

[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

Unknown

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

=================================================

[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.

=====================================================

[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?

========================================================

[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.]

========================================================

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.