Don't Believe Everything You Read About USAID's Cuba Democracy Program

Friday, August 8, 2014
By Jose Cardenas in Foreign Policy:

Don't Believe Everything You Read About the United States' Cuba Democracy Program

For the second time in four months, the Associated Press has published a gross distortion of USAID's Cuba Democracy Program that has made it the subject of unjust derision from the legions of U.S.-Cuba policy critics. The news agency evidently believes it has stumbled upon a vast, sinister U.S. conspiracy to overthrow the Castro regime, calling to mind those halcyon days of exploding cigars and poisoned wetsuits. It is nothing of the sort.

Previously, AP reported that USAID sought to foment an uprising in Cuba by introducing a rudimentary Twitter service for Cubans to utilize free of regime snooping. Now, we are told that USAID sent hapless youths from Latin America to Cuba to recruit agents to lead that national uprising.

Such assertions are ridiculous on their face. Moreover, it is distressing to see how easily people can apparently accept the notion that their government would involve itself in such lunacy.

The good news is, we don't. As I have written previously, I was intimately involved in implementing USAID's Cuba Program in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration. I wrote about the Twitter program back in April, and I participated in discussions during the Bush administration about ways to encourage purposeful foreign travel to Cuba by fellow Spanish-speakers to break down the Cuban people's isolation.

These were not spotty spring-breakers or members of loopy tourist groups that are licensed to travel to Cuba today on "cultural exchanges." They were seasoned members of Latin American NGOs with a commitment to democracy, civil rights, and human development. Their task was to develop relationships with ordinary Cubans outside of regime control for the express purpose of restoring to them some sense of individual self-worth and dignity that has been systematically trampled upon by the Castro regime for three generations. The idea that the U.S. government was running a "clandestine operation" to lead an uprising is simply risible.

Our real target was breaking down the barriers that the Castro regime imposes on Cuban citizens to keep them isolated from one another and civil society atomized. Helping individual Cubans to see themselves as human beings with natural rights -- indeed, in control of their own destiny -- and connecting them to the outside world was part of the strategy. I would venture to say that people on the streets of Peoria would hardly find such a policy as scandalous as AP apparently does.

Beyond the gross mischaracterization of the program, however, there appear to be other serious problems with AP's reporting, not least of which is that some of the groups interviewed by its reporters have subsequently complained about the reporters' ethical violations, including quotes out of context, identifying interviewees despite their request for anonymity, and bullying them into giving answers that fit a predetermined narrative. USAID also criticized the report as "sensationalist" in a strongly worded defense of the program.

As for the critics who have had a field day with the latest AP report, it's all so much faux high-mindedness and rectitude. The bottom line is that what matters to them is less what is being done under the program than the fact that the program exists at all. It represents an irritant and obstacle in the long-sought dream of U.S. reconciliation with the Castro regime. Frankly, one of the biggest ironies is their charge that we are "interfering" in the internal affairs of a country whose government has been interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbors for five decades.

Be that as it may, the Cuba program isn't going anywhere, because it is doing good work on behalf of the people of a captive nation. And because serious foreign policy practitioners understand that such programs are vital tools in the foreign policy toolkit in the 21st century. Indeed, some of the techniques developed under the Cuba program have been implemented elsewhere in similar situations. That means that, in the end, all the critics have is their self-satisfying ridicule for a program that exists only in their imagination.