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

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

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

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

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

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

Similar criticisms were voiced by the following:

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. USAID

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

  1. State Department

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

  1. Senator Robert Menendez
Senator Robert Menendez
Senator Robert Menendez

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

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

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

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

  1. Senator Jeff Flake

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

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

 

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

7. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet Another USAID Effort To Promote Regime Change in Cuba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

U.S. Senate Hearing Discusses USAID’s Social Media Program for Cuba

On April 8th a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee held a hearing on the upcoming funding of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). One of the subjects of the hearing was the agency’s social media program for Cuba.[1]

Dr. Rahiv Shah, the USAID Administrator, testified that the program was “an attempt to promote open communications between citizens on the island nation, not a covert attempt to overthrow the government.” He also said the program “was similar to others that the agency has financed in Africa to help citizens monitor elections.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, the subcommittee chair, did not buy that explanation. He said the program was ill conceived and endangered the lives of agency workers. “It taints U.S.A.I.D. workers as spies.” He also called it a “cockamamie” idea doomed to discovery and failure and complained that the agency did not adequately describe to Congress the program it was secretly operating. His voice rising in anger at moments, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, “This one from the get-go had no possibility of working.”

Senator Leahy also was clearly upset when Dr. Shah did not answer the Senator’s repeated question, “Whose idea was this [program]?” Finally Dr. Shah said he did not know who initially proposed the program before he was the agency administrator.

Another subject of Senator Leahy’s visible annoyance was Dr. Shah’s insistence that the program was legal and not covert. The Senator blamed it for further endangering the life of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who has been imprisoned in Cuba since 2009.

Earlier this year the Senator called for fundamental changes in U.S. policies regarding Cuba. He said the U.S. needs “to modernize our policies and the frozen-in-time embargo on Americans’ travel and trade with Cuba that have accomplished nothing but to give the Cuban regime a scapegoat for the failures of the Cuban economy.  Change will come to Cuba, but our policies have delayed and impeded change.” Leahy concluded, “Let us have the common sense, and the courage, to finally put an end to the Cold War in our own hemisphere.”

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[1] This post is based on articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Huffington Post. An earlier post and a comment thereto discussed the recent Associated Press’ report about the program and the reactions to it.

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

On April 3, 2014, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the U.S. Agency for International Aid (USAID) had been providing financial support from 2008 through 2012 for “a secret plan to build a social media project aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government.” This “messaging network . . . [was designed to] reach hundreds of thousands of Cubans.” “To hide the network from the Cuban government, [there was a] byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account, and . . . [recruitment of] unsuspecting executives who would not be told of the company’s ties to the U.S. government.”

According to the AP, after an initial period of creating non-political messages for this social media program, the U.S. planed to “introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize ‘smart mobs’ — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice that might trigger a Cuban Spring, or, as one USAID document put it, “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” In short, the social media program aimed to promote regime change in Cuba.

U.S. Government’s Responses to the AP Report

The U.S. Government responded to the AP article the same day by essentially confirming the existence of the social media program while playing word games over whether it was a covert operation and saying it was not aimed at changing the Cuba regime.

At an April 3rd press briefing, President Obama’s Press Secretary, Jay Carney, implicitly admitted the existence of this secret program while claiming it was not covert and was pursuant to congressionally authorized funding. He said, “suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong. . . . In implementing programs in non-permissive environments, of course the government has taken steps to be discreet.”

An USAID spokesman the same day said essentially the same thing. “Of course, [in] the implementation, . . the [U.S.]government [has] taken steps to be discreet in non-permissive environments . . . .  That’s how you protect the practitioners and the public. In hostile environments, we often take steps to protect the partners we’re working with on the ground. This is not unique to Cuba.”

USAID also issued an April 3rd statement that did not deny the AP’s report. Instead, the agency said, “It is longstanding U.S. policy to help Cubans increase their ability to communicate with each other and with the outside world. Working with resources provided by Congress for exactly this purpose, USAID is proud of its work in Cuba to provide basic humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and universal freedoms, and to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people.  All of our work in Cuba, including this project, was reviewed in detail in 2013 by the Government Accountability Office and found to be consistent with U.S. law and appropriate under oversight controls.”

USAID added, “It is also no secret that in hostile environments, governments take steps to protect the partners we are working with on the ground.” This was a backhanded way of admitting that the U.S. government’s involvement in this Cuban social media program was intentionally kept secret.

The U.S. State Department’s April 3rd briefing parroted these remarks. The spokesperson said, “there was nothing classified or covert about this program. Discreet does not equal covert.” She added, the funding was notified to Congress in a 2008 congressional notification titled “Outreach to New Sectors of Cuba Society” for the amount of $6,850,000 for a number of programs, including this one.” Moreover, the spokesperson alleged the U.S. was not “ somehow trying to foment unrest . . . [or] to advance a specific political agenda or point of view.” However, Senator Patrick Leahy has said he was not briefed on the program.

Yes, the U.S. Government Accountability Office investigated and last year issued a “clean bill of health” report on the U.S. “Cuba Democracy Assistance” programs, without mentioning the social media program. This report said that USAID and “Department of State .  . . provide democracy assistance for Cuba aimed at developing civil society and promoting freedom of information. Typical program beneficiaries include Cuban community leaders, independent journalists, women, youths, and marginalized groups.”[1]

Other U.S. Government Programs Directed at Cuba

The recent Cuban social media project must be seen in light of at least three other U.S. programs directed at and against Cuba.

First is the George W. Bush Administration’s creation in 2003 of the U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. It was directed it to report with recommendations for a comprehensive program to (i) “Bring about a peaceful, near-term end to the [Cuban] dictatorship;” (ii) “Establish democratic institutions, respect for human rights and the rule of law [in Cuba];” (iii) “Create the core institutions of a free economy [in Cuba];” (iv) “Modernize [Cuban] infrastructure;” and (v) “Meet [Cuban] basic needs in the areas of health, education, housing and human services.”

This Commission issued a report in May 2004 that stated “Religious organizations, including Catholic and certain authentically independent Protestant denominations, represent the fastest growing and potentially fastest growing alterative to the Cuban state in providing basic services and information to the Cuban people.” (P. 20; emphasis added.)

The rest of this report makes clear that the Commission believed that only evangelical Christian groups were authentically independent and should be used by the U.S. to build a free Cuba. According to this report, they had “the trust of the people and the means to organize through an existing social network of communications and distribution channels at all levels of society.”[i]

The report also called for the U.S. to avoid trying to use the Cuban Council of Churches, which the U.S. Commission believed had been “taken over by the Castro regime in the early 1960s and used as a means to control the Protestant churches.” (P. 64.) However, most of the clergy and laity of churches that belong to the Council, the Commission asserted, were “not sympathasizers of Castro and the communists and therefore should not be denied assistance or a role in Cuban religious affairs due to ‘guilt by association.” (P. 64)

The second other U.S. program directed against Cuba was the George W. Bush Administration’s 2005 creation of the position of Cuba Transition Coordinator in the State Department to implement the recommendations of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. Or in the words of then-Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, the position’s purpose was to “accelerate the demise of Castro’s tyranny.” In more practical terms, this position was charged with allocating millions of dollars in U.S. funding to Cuban dissidents and their U.S. supporters.

The third other program directed against Cuba is Radio y Televisión Martí, a radio and television broadcaster based in Miami, Florida that is financed by the U.S. Government (Broadcasting Board of Governors) and that transmits pro-democracy newscasts to Cuba.

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Reports on Cuba

Another U.S. commission—the Commission on International Religious Freedom– in its annual reports consistently has been very critical of that freedom in Cuba.

This Commission has placed Cuba in its “Watch List,” now called its “Tier 2” list of countries “where religious persecution and other violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments are increasing” or is “on the threshold of . . . [‘Countries of Particular Concern’] status—because the  “violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are particularly severe and that at least one, but not all three, of the elements of [the governing statute’s] ‘systematic, ongoing, egregious’ standard is met (e.g., the violations are egregious but not systematic or ongoing).”

The Commission apparently based its very negative appraisal of Cuba in its most recent  report for 2012 (issued in 2013) on the following grounds with respect to the Cuban government:

  •  alleged arrests and mistreatment of evangelical pastors, especially Pentacostal pastor Reutilio Columbie;
  • alleged arrests of human rights/democracy activists, including the Ladies in White, which prevented them for attending mass; and
  • alleged harassment of Cuba’s Apostolic Reformation Movement and the Western Baptist Convention by allegedly making “short-term arrests of [their] leaders, confiscation, destruction or threats of destruction of church property; harassment and surveillance of church members and their relatives; fines of churches; and threats of losses of job, housing or educational opportunities….”

This Blog’s Prior Critiques of the Commission’s Assessment of Cuba

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

First, as the Commission reports themselves proclaim, there have been “improvements” or “[p]ostive developments” for the religious freedom of most of the religious organizations on the island. The most recent report states:

  • “Positive developments for the Catholic Church and major registered Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, continued over the last year. The State Department reports that religious communities were given greater freedom to discuss politically sensitive issues. Catholic and Protestant Sunday masses were held in more prisons throughout the island. Religious denominations continued to report increased opportunities to conduct some humanitarian and charity work, receive contributions from co-religionists outside Cuba, and obtain Bibles and other religious materials. Small, local processions continued to occur in the provinces in 2012. The government granted the Cuban Council of Churches time for periodic broadcasts early Sunday mornings, and Cuba’s Roman Catholic Cardinal read Christmas and Easter messages on state-run stations.”
  • “Relations between the Catholic Church and Cuban government continued to improve. March 2012 marked the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin de Caridad de Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), Cuba’s patron saint. Pope Benedict XVI travelled to Cuba March 26-29 to participate in the celebrations, at which time he met Fidel Castro and Cuban President Rául Castro. Throughout the year, a replica of the Our Lady of Charity statue toured the island drawing large crowds. Prior to the Pope’s visit, 13 individuals occupied the Church of Charity of Cobre in Central Havana seeking an audience with His Holiness. The government removed, but did not charge, the individuals at the request of the Church.”

Second, the Commission’s statements about positive developments cover, I submit, most of the religious organizations and believers in Cuba, whereas the organizations cited by the Commission for its harsh judgments are the distinct minority. That, of course, does not excuse the Cuban government from committing any of the alleged acts regarding these organizations and believers, if that in fact is the case.

Third, the Commission’s complaint about the treatment of “human rights/democracy activists,” if they are substantiated by evidence, are really complaints about violations of human rights other than religious freedom. Therefore, they do not really belong in the limited scope of the Commission’s mandate.

Fourth, the Commission apparently is unable to put itself in the shoes of the Cuban government, which for many years has had to contend with the super power of the North, which has consistently taken hostile actions against the island, including those of the “Cuba Democracy Assistance” program. The wise words of Matthew 7: 5 come to mind: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

Conclusion

This blogger concludes that the revelation yesterday of the U.S. secret social media program for Cuba as part of the U.S.’ so called “Cuba Democracy Assistance” programs should raise serious questions about the legitimacy of the conclusions on Cuban religious freedom coming from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Specifically, there should be an independent investigation of whether Cuba’s Apostolic Reformation Movement, its Western Baptist Convention and pastor Reutilio Columbie have received or are receiving any funding or other support from the U.S. Government, including USAID, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and the Commission on International Religious Freedom itself. I hope that this is not the case.

More generally, such an investigation should determine whether the harshly negative views of the Commission on International Religious Freedom are being driven by the philosophy and objectives of the Cuba Assistance Programs. Again I hope this is not the case.

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[1] The Cuban government also reacted to the AP article by saying in Granma it “confirms the repeated complaints of the Cuban government. It shows once again that the U.S. government has not given up its subversive plans against Cuba, which aim to create situations of destabilization in the country to bring about change in our political system and which continues to devote multimillion dollar budgets each year. The U.S. government must respect international law and the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and, therefore, cease its illegal and covert actions against Cuba, which are rejected by the Cuban people and the international public opinion.”