San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

What is USAID up to with its ‘Democracy Promotion’ programs in Cuba?

The idea of “democracy promotion” is noble, but Washington’s efforts in Cuba – emphasizing clandestine and covert operations to drive regime change – have wasted a couple hundred million dollars, cost the United States valuable prestige on the island, and hurt relations with Costa Rica and other countries. The operations have been conducted without transparency, debate or, apparently in Costa Rica, government approval.

Several extraordinary investigations by The Associated Press have brought to light some of the secret operations by USAID – traditionally known for humanitarian assistance – aimed at driving political change in Cuba. They involve organizing people for anti-regime activity, establishing secret communications systems for dissidents, and creating conditions for a new government as prescribed by the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 – the legislation that USAID cites as authority for its programs.

Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor sitting in a Cuban hospital-prison for more than four years now, was deploying sensitive technology controlled by the U.S. government to create a secret communications system – “to test to see if it works” for unspecified future operations. Another program, Project ZunZuneo, was intended to incite Cubans to engage in flash-mob protests and other anti-regime activities to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” Other operations adopted a health care cover – AIDS prevention – to organize unsuspecting Cubans to undertake activities with political overtones. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Clark Lobenstine, executive director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, speaks on behalf of imprisoned U.S. citizen Alan Gross, who has been held in a Cuban prison for more than 4 years, during a Washington, D.C. rally in December 2013.

Paul J. Richards/AFP

Under the rubric of “democracy promotion,” some of USAID’s “partners” paid people – unaware it was U.S. government money – to join anti-government protests. Others were distributing “informational products,” including attacks on the Cuban Catholic Church, that were inconsistent with U.S. policy and values. When I worked on a congressional committee staff, a USAID grantee offered us bottles of fancy rum after boasting about his covert activities in Europe, organizing protests against host governments’ policies toward Cuba.

These aren’t intelligence operations, but they are both clandestine and covert (the U.S. government’s hand is obsessively concealed) because unreported, foreign-funded political action is illegal in Cuba (as it is in the United States and almost everywhere else) and because the focus is obviously aggressive. In Washington, moreover, the operations are not subjected to the scrutiny imposed on real spooks. Contrary to U.S. law governing covert operations, they are not approved by the president. The State Department and USAID told us congressional staff that we and our bosses – congressmen and senators – were not cleared to know what they were doing in Cuba. “People would die” was the excuse. They claimed, falsely, that democracy couldn’t be promoted any other way.

Congressional oversight is never perfect, but the lack of it leads to confusion over U.S. policy. U.S. President Barack Obama once called for a “new beginning” in relations with Cuba, and he authorized a limited increase in “people-to-people” relations, but the bureaucracy under him has stayed true to his predecessor’s regime-change priorities.

The spy-v-spy approach multiplies the risk that the operations represent to all involved. The secrecy and encrypted communications systems made Alan Gross’ defense many times harder and prison term longer. Secret cash for political activities undermine participants’ credibility and subject them to more hostile government treatment. Outside Cuba, governments friendly to Washington feel betrayed when they are targeted for political influence operations.

It’s hard to judge what the Cuban people really feel about all this. Those involved love it, and those who aren’t, don’t. But most Cubans aren’t as ignorant as our policy assumes they are, and a large number of them must resent that Cuban counterintelligence scores win after win against the United States. Cuban TV has shown videos of the State Department and USAID’s agents doing their work, with voiceover commentary mocking the yanquis’ arrogance in assuming they were undetected.

Cubans indeed want change, but it’s clearer than ever that they want it to be evolutionary – as seems to be happening now – rather than revolutionary, destabilizing and destructive. The regime-change programs, like the 60-year trade embargo, have not only failed to achieve their stated purposes; their approach – heating the pressure-cooker to the point of exploding – does not enjoy broad support.

(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

If President Obama wants to argue that covert operations to effect change in Cuba will work and are in the U.S. national interest, then he should make that case. And he should run the programs under a Presidential Finding – as required by law – and through the intelligence community, rather than policy agencies and their profit-making partners.

But democratic transitions in many countries show that there are vastly more effective ways of facilitating change – through trade, tourism and an array of social and cultural interaction. Before President George W. Bush shut them down, the State Department ran book programs, cultural and academic outreach in Cuba, and visitor programs showed Cubans that Washington was not an imperial ogre pushing just one, self-serving vision of their future. People-to-people contacts have proven a lot more effective than any secret government program at getting information and resources to Cubans seeking a better life.

Fulton T. Armstrong, a senior fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (Washington, D.C.), has lived in Costa Rica for the past year and a half. He was previously senior adviser for Latin America on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. National Intelligence Officer for Latin America, and senior analyst at the CIA for many years.

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Ken Morris

Humberto Capiro makes many good points, but at the end of the day I wonder if they don’t beg the question. Isn’t the question why the hell USAID was in Cuba in the first place?

Once you assume, as Mr. Capiro apparently does, that it is fine for a US agency to spend millions of dollars beefing up so-called “civil society” in Cuba without the US president knowing or approving, then the debate does come down to the details of exactly what USAID was doing and so forth. He may even be right about many of the details.

However, I don’t assume that USAID had any business in Cuba in the first place, so for people like me the he said/she said is beside the point.

Worse, in ever instance I am familiar with, US efforts to build “civil society” in foreign countries always goes to the political opponents of whoever the US opposes at the time. Mind, improving “civil society” is important (in the US as well as abroad) but I have just never seen US funds earmarked for that rhetorical purpose actually spent on it.

Hillary Clinton recently criticized Obama’s foreign policy on the grounds that Obama’s statement to the effect that the “US shouldn’t do the wrong thing” isn’t a very sophisticated foreign policy. Fair enough, it isn’t, but it’s not unlike the physicians’ oath “first, do no harm,” and not a bad guiding philosophy for US foreign policy.

Here we have another instance of the US doing the wrong thing (even if a few right things were mixed up with the wrong things) and I have to ask myself why the US continually does this. Isn’t it wiser to do nothing until you’re sure that what you do won’t be wrong?

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When is the US goverment going to start working on there own problems at home? I guess never. Cuba is not a threat at all to anyone. The US goverment is a mess and they use many groups like US aid and CIA and NSA and many other to hurt other countries. Alan Gross is a spy and worked for the CIA as a contractor for 20 years. Thats a fact. Have you ever noticed how US citizens think there goverment is always right.

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Humberto Capiro


CBS NEWS: Cuban Jewish leader knew imprisoned American-First member of Cuba’s small Jewish community admits knowing and talking to American Alan Gross, imprisoned for allegedly smuggling illegal satellite communication devices-By Portia Siegelbaum
NPR : In Cuba, Jailed American Alan Gross Faces Trial
BLOCK: Now, foreign journalists, I understand, are not allowed into the courtroom to cover the trial. You were outside the courthouse today. What were you able to learn there?
MIROFF: That’s right. He’s being tried in a small municipal courthouse far away from the city center.

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Humberto Capiro

N.Y. TIMES: Senators Urge Castro to Release American – By JONATHAN WEISMAN – February 24, 2012
Mr. Gross, who was accused of bringing satellite and other communications equipment to Cuba, was convicted of crimes against the state, not espionage. Cuban authorities “do not consider Alan Gross a spy,” Mr. Leahy said.
Mr. Gross had traveled to Cuba five times in 2009 under his own name before his arrest.

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Humberto Capiro

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL: Cuba urged to revoke repressive laws and release prisoners of conscience

Amnesty International on Wednesday called on the Cuban authorities to revoke laws that restrict freedom of expression, assembly and association and to release all dissidents unfairly detained by the authorities.

The organization also urged President Raúl Castro to allow independent monitoring of the human rights situation in Cuba by inviting UN experts to visit the country and by facilitating monitoring by other human rights groups.

“Cuban laws impose unacceptable limits on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly,” said Kerrie Howard, Americas Deputy Director at Amnesty International. “Cuba desperately needs political and legal reform to bring the country in line with basic international human rights standards.

“The long imprisonment of individuals solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights is not only a tragedy in itself but also constitutes a stumbling block to other reforms, including the beginning of the dialogue needed for the lifting of the US unilateral embargo against Cuba.”

Several articles of the Cuban Constitution and Criminal Code are so vague that they are currently being interpreted in a way that infringes fundamental freedoms.

Article 91 of Cuba’s Criminal Code provides for sentences of ten to 20 years or death for anyone “who in the interest of a foreign state, commits an act with the objective of damaging the independence or territorial integrity of the Cuban state”.

According to article 72 “any person shall be deemed dangerous if he or she has shown a proclivity to commit crimes demonstrated by conduct that is in manifest contradiction with the norms of socialist morality” and article 75.1 states that any police officer can issue a warning for such “dangerousness”. The declaration of a dangerous pre-criminal state can be decided summarily. A warning may also be issued for associating with a “dangerous person”.

Law 88 provides for seven to 15 years’ imprisonment for passing information to the United States that could be used to bolster anti-Cuban measures, such as the US economic blockade. The legislation also bans the ownership, distribution or reproduction of “subversive materials” from the US government, and proposes terms of imprisonment of up to five years for collaborating with radio, TV stations or publications deemed to be assisting US policy.

Local non-governmental organizations have great difficulty in reporting on human rights violations due to restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression, association and movement. International independent human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, are not allowed to visit the island.

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Humberto Capiro

Fulton Armstrong is a bit compromised and in my view a “bit suspect” (big Cuban sarcasm)! His biased, pro-Castro track record includes working with Puerto Rican spy Ana Belen Montes. She was a US citizen working for the Castro “government” inside the CIA! And the program is Anti-Castro NOT Anti-Cuban dear!

CAPITOL HILLS CUBANS: AP Should Next Investigate How to Regain Its Objectivity – from original Spanish by Mauricio Claver-Carone

This morning, the AP released the third chapter in its collaboration with former CIA analyst and Senate staffer, Fulton Armstrong, on how to smear USAID’s Cuba democracy programs.

USAID’s democracy programs throughout the world, whether in Iran, Syria, Belarus or Cuba, are aimed at fostering and supporting independent civil society in closed societies. (Read USAID’s statement here.)

Armstrong has a long history of internally working against U.S. policy towards Cuba. During his time at the CIA, Armstrong authored, together with his former colleague at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Ana Belen Montes, an oft-cited 1998 report that argued that Cuba no longer posed a security threat to the United States. Ironically, just three years later (in 2001), Montes was identified as a Cuban spy, arrested, convicted and is now serving 25-years in a federal prison.

As a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer, he fervently opposed any endeavor that promoted freedom for the Cuban people, whether through USAID’s democracy programs, Radio and TV Marti, or a simple Senate resolution calling for the release of political prisoners. If the Castro regime dislikes it, so does Fulton Armstrong.

His strategy (and now the AP’s) in the case of USAID’s democracy programs is simple — use little facts and regurgitate the terms “covert,” “regime change” and “sovereignty” over-and-over again.

The first chapter in the AP’s collaboration with Armstrong sought to portray American development worker (and hostage of the Castro regime), Alan Gross, as some sort of “super-spy” who smuggled highly-sophisticated communications systems into Cuba.

(After all, if Alan Gross is a “spy”, then he could be swapped for other spies. Get it?)

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