The U.S. and Cuba: Democracy Assistance with Hands Tied


April 15, 2014


Following accusations that USAID carried out an illegal program to establish a Twitter-like social network in Cuba, AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini and Senior Editor Alana Tummino argue in The Hill's Congress Blog that change in Cuba is coming from within, but that the U.S. government can help support these efforts with executive actions that cost nothing to taxpayers and that would help expand opportunities and assistance for Cuban entrepreneurs.

Democracy Assistance with Hands Tied

By: Christopher Sabatini and Alana Tummino

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has been battered this week with news and accusations that it carried out a covert program to establish a Twitter-like service in Cuba.  The program ultimately failed, costing hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars and, allegedly, violated Cuban law.  

The cacophony of criticism, though, is misplaced.   Democracy assistance, even in closed societies like Cuba’s, has long been a centerpiece of the U.S. development agency’s programs, and often requires on-the-ground secrecy to avoid crackdown by the government.  

The larger problem is the efficacy of these efforts.  In contrast to the cowboy bravado revealed in the memos of USAID and its contractors and the hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money invested in ZunZuneo (the name of the service), another branch of government, the White House, has launched of series of initiatives that have actually helped foster and sustain economic and individual autonomy through the expansion of travel and remittances.  

The executive actions, passed first in 2009 and later expanded with people-to-people travel in 2011, cost nothing.  By allowing Cuban Americans to travel and to send remittances more freely to the island and permitting U.S. cultural and academic visitors to travel to the island, the U.S. reforms have fueled the growth of a nascent private sector on the communist island.

Today, roughly half a million visitors, most of them Cuban American, travel to the island every year. The trips allow for greater communication, interaction, and sharing of ideas and technology—as one would expect.   As a result of recent changes in Cuban law that allow  Cubans to have cell phones, the travel back and forth has meant that today over 1 million people in Cuba have cell phones.

The best thing is that more, cost-free, executive actions can continue these changes that have already started.

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