There’s Nothing Sinister or Unique about USAID’s Cuba Program
Critics of U.S. policy towards Cuba are in high dudgeon over an Associated Press “blockbuster” story on an attempt by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to fund the start-up of a rudimentary Twitter network in Cuba. We are being led to believe that somehow the United States got “caught” in some sort of rogue “covert action” in Cuba, bringing us back to the “bad old days” of poisoned cigars and exploding shellfish targeting Fidel Castro.
Long-time embargo opponent Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), for example, went before the cameras to ask the U.S. government, “What in heaven’s name are you thinking?”
I’ll tell you what they were thinking, as I was intimately involved in USAID’s Cuba Democracy Program in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration. Back then, Congress had just tripled the program’s funding and our task was to leverage the social media revolution to break down the Castro regime’s wall of censorship placed between ordinary Cubans and the outside world, and between Cubans themselves. Our goal was to help create pockets of freedom for the Cuban people, in which their every thought and word would not be monitored by the Castro regime.
We knew that if there is one thing that dictatorial regimes feared more than freedom of expression, it was freedom of assembly. That is why the Castro regime keeps Cuba’s dissident community atomized. We wanted to take advantage of modern communications technology denied to Cubans to put them in touch with one another sans government censorship. If they wanted to discuss politics or weather it made no difference; the goal was to facilitate communication amongst them. (Although the Cuba Democracy Program was subsequently downgraded and revamped by the Obama administration, the technology focus of the Bush administration remained for some time.)
Of course, there was risk. Everyone understood the challenges and dangers of implementing such programs in a police state. But at the same time, everyone involved knew it was the right thing to do if the United States stood for anything at all in the world. (The later arrest of Alan Gross involved a mistake that should not have happened.) That the programs were implemented discreetly was precisely to protect peoples’ lives. The Castro regime has been abusing the Cuban people for five decades; no one was about to advocate advertising the details of what we were trying to accomplish on the island.
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