Defending U.S. democracy program for Cuba

Towards the end of the recent Senate confirmation hearing of the newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry, presiding Sen. Bob Menendez, D-NJ, made a point to secure his former colleague’s public support for official U.S. programs that support democratic development abroad.

It was a shrewd move by Menendez, since he knew that during Sen. Kerry’s tenure as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his staff was openly hostile to democracy funding for Cuba and worked to obstruct its implementation.

The Cuba Democracy Program, which is administered by both the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, is what is known within the bureaucracy as a “cross-border program” into a non-presence country — meaning we are trying to help support people living in repressive states in which we have no local development office.

There is nothing about it that is unique or unprecedented. There are, or have been, at least six other countries in which the U.S. government runs similar cross-border programs. But what is indeed unique about the program is the level of scrutiny and criticism it has been subjected to — which has only intensified since the Castro regime’s 2009 arrest of U.S. development worker Alan Gross for bringing Internet equipment to a small Cuban Jewish group.

The Cuba program, as with the other cross-border programs, is designed to support civil societies under repressive governments by delivering anything from humanitarian aid to material assistance. In more than a decade’s operation, the Cuba program has helped to promote the free flow of information to, from, and within Cuba, through printed, electronic, and social media; trained hundreds of independent journalists whose reports today appear in major international news outlets; trained human rights groups to document abuses for submission to international organizations; worked with Cuban youth to encourage them to freely express themselves through rap and other musical forms; and provided critical humanitarian aid, including food and medicine, to political prisoners and their families, among many other initiatives.

Yet, in trying to discredit the program, critics have fundamentally mischaracterized it, many times at the expense of Gross. Due to their operation in difficult environments, cross-border programs are inherently risky, which is understood by all involved. Because these unelected regimes routinely arrest citizens trying to exercise their human rights, the programs are carried out discretely, with the goal solely of trying to protect people’s safety.

The programs are hardly fool-proof; they are rife with trial-and-error approaches, and, given the risks of secret police infiltration and confiscation of materials, there is a measure of tolerance for losses and failed initiatives.

Of course, critics of the Cuba programs will not be satisfied with such context. They claim the program is “illegal” and an unwarranted interference in Cuba’s internal affairs. Well, that may be true if you do not believe the legitimacy of a government and its laws rest on consent of the governed and that people’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable.

But for those who do believe so, such cross-border programs are an essential (and relatively inexpensive) instrument in the U.S. foreign policy toolkit. They signal U.S. solidarity with captive nations and seek to exact a cost from tyrannical governments, because they are the right things to do.

Frankly, singling out one program over any of the others betrays a political motivation that undercuts the critics’ arguments. The only conclusion one can draw is that their opposition is based merely on the fact that it is viewed as an impediment to U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, because the Castro regime vehemently opposes it.

What happened to Gross is a tragedy, but the morally correct position is to focus blame directly where it belongs: on a repressive, out-dated dictatorship that continues to keep its people in ideological bondage in violation of every single human rights convention signed by civilized nations.

The United States has made a commitment to the Cuban people through its democracy support. And the fact that the biggest challenge to the program, other than the difficult environment, is that Cubans continue to request more and more material support to expand their independence is the best testimony to keep the program alive.

José R. Cárdenas is a director at VisionAmericas, a Washington, D.C.-based consultancy that represents foreign and domestic clients. He served 2004-2009 in the George W. Bush administration, including as acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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