In Cuba, Misadventures in Regime Change
By THE EDITORIAL BOARDNOV. 9, 2014
In 1996, spurred by an appetite for revenge, American lawmakers passed a
bill spelling out a strategy to overthrow the government in Havana and
“assist the Cuban people in regaining their freedom.” The Helms-Burton
Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton shortly after Cuba shot
down two small civilian American planes, has served as the foundation
for the $264 million the United States has spent in the last 18 years
trying to instigate democratic reforms on the island.
Far from accomplishing that goal, the initiatives have been largely
counterproductive. The funds have been a magnet for charlatans,
swindlers and good intentions gone awry. The stealthy programs have
increased hostility between the two nations, provided Cuba with a trove
of propaganda fodder and stymied opportunities to cooperate in areas of
The United States should strive to promote greater freedoms on the
island of 11 million people and loosen the grip of one of the most
repressive governments in the world. But it must chart a new approach
informed by the lessons of nearly two decades of failed efforts to
destabilize the Castro regime.
During the final years of the Clinton administration, the United States
spent relatively little on programs in Cuba under Helms-Burton. That
changed when George W. Bush came to power in 2001 with an ambitious aim
to bring freedom to oppressed people around the world. The United States
Agency for International Development, better known for its humanitarian
work than cloak-and-dagger missions, became the primary vehicle for
pro-democracy work in Cuba, where it is illegal.
In the early years of the Bush administration, spending on initiatives
to oust the government surged from a few million a year to more than $20
million in 2004. Most contracts were awarded, without much oversight, to
newly formed Cuban-American groups. One used funds on a legally
questionable global lobbying effort to persuade foreign governments to
support America’s unpopular embargo. Other grantees sent loads of comic
books to the American diplomatic mission in Havana, bewildering
officials there. The money was also used to buy food and clothes, but
there was no way to track how much reached relatives of political
prisoners, the intended recipients.
According to a November 2006 report by the Government Accountability
Office, one contractor used the pro-democracy money to buy “a gas chain
saw, computer gaming equipment and software (including Nintendo Game
Boys and Sony PlayStations), a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere
sweaters, crab meat and Godiva chocolates,” purchases he was unable to
justify to auditors.
Adolfo Franco, then head of the aid agency’s Latin America office,
defended the programs in a speech in April 2007 at the University of
Miami, claiming they were contributing to the steady growth of Cuba’s
political opposition. He argued that the agency needed to keep taking
“calculated risks,” even though many in Congress were skeptical that the
efforts were fruitful. “Ending this regime is a solemn duty,” said Mr.
Franco, a Cuban-American.
The G.A.O. probe led the aid agency to start awarding more funds to
established development organizations, including some that pitched bold
initiatives. In 2008, Congress appropriated $45 million for the
programs, a record amount. One major undertaking that started during the
Bush years to expand Internet access in Cuba had disastrous
repercussions for the Obama administration.
In September 2009, the State Department sent a relatively senior
official to Havana in an attempt to restore mail service and to
cooperate on migration policy, marking the highest level contact in
years. That December, Cuban authorities arrested an American
subcontractor who traveled to the island five times on U.S.A.I.D.
business, posing as a tourist to smuggle communication equipment.
At the time, many senior State Department officials were not fully aware
of the scope and nature of the covert programs, but the Cubans, incensed
at what they saw as a disingenuous two-track policy, took a hard line
with the American prisoner, Alan Gross, sentencing him to 15 years in
prison. Senior officials at U.S.A.I.D. and the State Department were
startled by the risks being taken, and some argued that the covert
programs were counterproductive and should be stopped. But
Cuban-American lawmakers fought vigorously to keep them alive.
After Mr. Gross’s arrest, the aid agency stopped sending American
contractors into Cuba, but it allowed its contractors to recruit Latin
Americans for secret missions that were sometimes detected by the Cuban
intelligence services. An investigation by The Associated Press
published in April revealed a controversial program carried out during
the Obama administration. Between 2009 and 2012, Creative Associates
International, a Washington firm, built a rudimentary text messaging
system similar to Twitter, known as ZunZuneo, Cuban slang for a
hummingbird’s tweet. It was supposed to provide Cubans with a platform
to share messages with a mass audience, and ultimately be used to
assemble “smart mobs.”
The program was scrapped in 2012. Contractors had been paying tens of
thousands of dollars in text-messaging fees to the Cuban
telecommunications company and never found a way to make the platform
self-sustaining. A second A.P. report revealed in August that U.S.A.I.D.
had been sending young Latin Americans to Cuba to identify “potential
social change actors,” under the pretext of organizing gatherings like
an H.I.V. prevention workshop. The contractors, also hired by Creative
Associates, received quick pointers on how to evade Cuban intelligence
and were paid as little as $5.41 an hour for work that could have easily
landed them in prison.
The American money has provided food and comfort to some relatives of
political prisoners, and been used to build limited access to
satellite-based Internet connections. But it has done more to stigmatize
than to help dissidents. Instead of stealth efforts to overthrow the
government, American policy makers should find ways to empower ordinary
Cubans by expanding study-abroad programs, professional exchanges and
investment in the new small businesses cropping up around the island.
They should continue to promote Internet connectivity, but realize that
accomplishing that goal on a large scale will require coordination with
the Cuban government.
Perhaps most important, Washington should recognize that the most it can
hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a
more open society. That is more likely to come about through stronger
diplomatic relations than subterfuge.
Source: In Cuba, Misadventures in Regime Change – NYTimes.com –