Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Dear AP, Sometimes a Democracy Program Is Just a Democracy Program—Even in Cuba

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For the past several years, with almost predictable regularity, The Associated Press (AP) has been producing a series of articles supposedly revealing the secret, unaccountable cloak-and-dagger misdeeds of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in its Cuba program. For all the implied sinister intentions, bureaucratic overreach and shades of John le Carré-like intrigue, though, all the AP has exposed are really just democracy programs—not that different from those that have been conducted in many other countries, often with the support of human rights organizations, local citizens and the international community. The problem is, this is Cuba, where nothing’s ever straightforward. 

To be sure, there’s plenty to complain about and cloud U.S. policy toward Cuba even—or especially—when it comes to the work of the U.S.’ official development agency, USAID. First, there’s the odious, ridiculous policy of a 50-plus-year embargo on the island.  Sadly, USAID’s democracy work was added to that failed policy in 1997, when Congress forced USAID to develop a democracy assistance program as a component of the Helms-Burton Law.

The law politicized USAID’s democracy work from its inception. Helms-Burton (or, as it is officially and unironically named, the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act) codified the U.S. embargo into law, and established an unprecedented set of human rights and democracy standards that would have to be met before the president could even ask Congress to lift the embargo, thereby unconstitutionally tying the president’s hands in conducting foreign affairs.  It also explicitly tied USAID’s development policy to Congress’ political agenda and was (let’s just say) a unique law in U.S. foreign policy.  Since then, USAID’s program has been victim to the rhetorical, outsized ambitions of Cuban-Americans who care more about sticking their finger in the eye of their nemesis, Fidel Castro, than in producing real change . This included the corruption of a number of aid recipients like the Center for a Free Cuba , the cowboy antics of appointees of the President George W. Bush administration, who added $80 million to the already $70 million outlay to USAID for its Cuba programs over 2007-2008 (for a country of only 11 million people), and baldly talking about USAID’s assistance as a regime change program. Such blatantly aggressive language (the likes of which USAID doesn’t use in any of its other democracy programs) has ultimately put at risk many of the participants in the program, and led to the sort of suspicions that the AP stories have trafficked in.

But democracy assistance hasn’t always been so politically instrumentalized, and in fact—despite all the ridiculous and offensive rhetoric—USAID is only doing what it has done in many other countries, without the alleged conspiracy and assumptions of the dark hand of the CIA behind programs that have been universally accepted and endorsed in other countries. 

[Now, full disclosure—I worked in USAID from 1995 to 1997, and as Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) from 1997 to 2008. While I never worked on USAID’s Cuba programs, I did manage and oversee the NED’s Cuba-related democracy programs intended to support human rights and political space on the island.  And while I can’t testify to the specifics of many of the programs that AP has reported on, from Alan Gross to the fake Twitter Zun-Zuneo social media effort to the recent so-called revelations that USAID sent Latin American youth to the island to incite rebellion, I can well imagine that there is quite likely less here than AP would want you to believe, and—heaven forfend—that many would actually support without all the overcast of usual U.S. shenanigans.  That said, the allegations that youth leaders were sent to Cuba without knowing who was paying is troubling, if true.]

Democracy Activists in Solidarity

The most recent pseudo-revelation by the AP has been that USAID has sent democracy activists to Cuba to work with apathetic youths to mobilize them. This follows a long investigative report on jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross, who has been in a Cuban prison since December 2009 for supplying the Cuban-Jewish community with telecommunications equipment.  The article alleged that some of the equipment Gross had with him could never have been acquired over the counter, implying that it was only accessible to spies—a patently false assertion (all of the equipment could be purchased on the open market), and an allegation that was never challenged. 

Then, there was the story of Zun Zuneo, the knock-off Twitter program supposedly foisted on unsuspecting Cubans in an effort to get them connected. The program ultimately failed, at the cost of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars. 

But while these are expensive follies (efforts to connect Cuban citizens with the U.S. and the world could be better affected through the liberalization of the embargo that put the tools of Internet communication and technology directly in the hands of Cubans), these programs are not the sort of sinister clandestine programs AP would have you believe. Those articles rely on ridiculously ramped-up language, referring to programs as “operations,” or having “ulterior motives,” and pointing out that they are considered illegal by the local government.  (Uh, that’s been true of a number of USAID and U.S. government programs in countries like Chile in 1989, then under General Augusto Pinochet—but no one would have blamed subterfuge there for trying to support political change.)

In fact, despite all their pretentions (and potential lack of effectiveness), these programs are standard democracy fare—and under regimes that enjoy less international support (and legitimate questions about U.S. policy overall), they have barely raised a peep of opposition.  

Let’s start with the most recent revelations that USAID sent activists to Cuba. Leaving aside the incendiary phrases such as “clandestine operation” or that they were there “to provoke unrest,” the sending of international civic leaders to work with counterparts in an authoritarian country has been done in countries as varied as Chile (1989), Mexico (1997 and 2000), Peru (2000), and under apartheid South Africa, to name only a few.

In those cases, leaders and organizations traveled to the countries to meet with counterparts to help them organize and mobilize, whether for direct political activity, to engage citizens to participate politically, or to monitor elections. Yes, in many cases they were activists who worked in areas other than those directly related to democracy—the idea being that whether it was vaso de leche (glass of milk) programs, women’s rights programs, or community decision-making efforts, these sorts of tools are important to civically empower citizens to address their own needs. 

And yes, in some of those cases, they did it “clandestinely” to avoid repression by the local government.  In many of those cases—as in Peru in 2000, in which I was involved—they travelled under tourist visas—an allegation AP levels at the Costa Rican, Venezuela and Peruvian youth activists who traveled to Cuba. And why not?  Can you imagine a Mexican NGO leader traveling to Peru in 2000, then under Alberto Fujimori’s government,  and declaring “so, I’m not here as a tourist; I’m here to monitor whether your president is stealing the election. What box do I check for that?”   

Blurred Lines

What’s left unsaid in these articles and the predictable piling on to USAID are the conditions inside Cuba that lead to this level of secrecy. Reading any of these articles, or their peanut gallery shouts of endorsement, one would assume that all was hunky dory in Cuba—that the Castro government endorsed or even supported human rights, accepted—even responded to—dissent over matters of healthcare policy, and permitted the sort of collaboration among nongovernmental organizations allowed throughout the hemisphere and much of the world. Of course, the Castro government doesn’t allow for those things, not at all.  

Things are changing on the island, and U.S. policy needs to change with it. A large part of that involves liberalizing elements of the embargo to allow the sort of travel and technology transfer that U.S. taxpayers now support. But the AP should also let readers, whether they agree with USAID programs in Cuba or not, understand the perverse policy context in which they are conducted and the conditions inside Cuba. 

Instead, the pattern has been to make USAID look only like a rogue agency for activities that—while we may or may not like them—are still within the normal scope of traditional democracy programs, especially in the repressive conditions inside Cuba.  They’ve unfortunately been wrapped up in an utterly unproductive, unprecedented and politically clumsy policy.

Sure, what the AP claims to have been revealing makes for good investigative reporting and a trumped-up scoop, but it ain’t James Bond, despite efforts to present it as such. In fact, despite all the ridiculous rhetoric and posturing by many in USAID and its contractors (and many of the Republicans who ran the programs during the Bush years), they’re not that different from what USAID has done in other countries.


Christopher Sabatini is the former editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and former senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. His Twitter account is @ChrisSabatini

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