Does the U.S. government have the right to circumvent a dictatorship’s controls on information? And if Washington tries to help foster democracy in a country ruled by a dictator, is it pushing for “regime change?”
Those are the fundamental questions raised by an Associated Press report Thursday that the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, financed a “secret” Twitter-like system for Cubans “designed to undermine the communist government.”
Replies predictably ranged from a rotund no to a flat yes, largely reflecting the divisions over U.S. policies on Cuba and the more than half-century of animosity between the two nations.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the AP was wrong in branding USAID’s “Zunzuneo” program as covert. In “non-permissive environments” it is “discreet” to “protect the practitioners and the public,” he said. “This is not unique to Cuba.”
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf took aim at what she called the “misconceptions” in the “breathlessly written” AP report and said, “The notion that we were somehow trying to foment unrest nothing could be further from the truth.”
But Max Lesnik, a Miami radio commentator who supports the government of ruler Raúl Castro, called Zunzuneo “an operation aimed at changing the Cuban government — regime change. This is a covert aggression through social networks.”
Cuba’s government has outlawed the USAID programs as subversive and calls all dissidents “U.S. mercenaries.” The agency says its programs promote democracy and support civil society, and notes that Congress approved $20 million for them this year alone.
USAID subcontractor Alan Gross is serving a 15-year sentence in Havana for giving Cuban Jews sophisticated communications equipment that would have allowed them to sidestep government controls on the Internet and telephone connections.
Ninoska Perez Castellon, a Miami radio commentator and Castro critic, said the USAID programs are needed. “Cuba is a dictatorship, and any program that helps a country where there is repression and censorship is justified,” she said.
She added that Cuba’s complaints that Washington is promoting subversion on the island are “total hypocrisy” because the Castro government trained and armed leftist guerrillas from throughout Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s.
But Washington should be careful in how it supports civil society in repressive countries, said Emily Parker, author of a book on Internet controls in Cuba, China and Russia and advisor on digital diplomacy to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“The U.S. needs to tread very carefully in countries like Cuba because to directly support [dissidents] makes it easy to call them mercenaries,” Parker said. “That sometimes does more harm than good.”
There are other ways for Washington to support the Internet in Cuba, she said, such as eliminating U.S. obstacles to access that are sometimes created by the trade embargo. Her book, Now I Know Who My Comrades Are, was published early this year.
Cuba democracy advocate Mauricio Claver-Carone, meanwhile, said it was no surprise for the U.S. media and some politicians to complain about U.S. policies in Cuba but praise the same policies when they are applied to other countries.
A global outcry followed Turkey’s ongoing attempts to cut off Twitter amid the ongoing anti-government protests, he said, and USAID runs similar programs to expand the flow of information in dictatorships such as Syria, North Korea and Iran.
“That’s not controversial. Everybody supports that. But it seems Cuba is the only place where we have to accept a totalitarian government’s control over communications,” said Claver-Carone, director of the U.S. Cuba Democracy political action committee.
Cuba’s communist government controls all newspapers, radio and TV stations, makes access to the Internet very expensive and and blocks access to many web pages and the transmissions of the U.S. government’s Radio/TV Marti stations.
“The story that needs to be told is the lack of access to the Internet and Twitter in Cuba,” said Marc Wachtenheim, a Washington consultant who has been involved with the Cuba programs. “All efforts to overcome that information blockade are valid and moral.”
Cuba blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo said his complaint about the Zunzuneo program was that it was so ineffective in reaching Cubans — 40,000 in a nation of 11 million — that he only heard about it from a government supporter a few years back.
But he supports the goal of promoting democracy on the island.
“The U.S. government, and many democratic governments, have a moral debt with countries ruled by dictatorships,” he said. “They talk about a debt with slavery, a debt with colonies, but not a debt with despotic countries.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said USAID’s Cuba programs are not secret but have to keep a low profile to protect people in Cuba from government retaliation.
While bags of U.S. food sent to Haiti carry a U.S. stamp, Ros-Lehtinen said, a U.S. government program that sends books to independent libraries in Cuba does not put U.S. stamps on the books.
What’s more, the objective is not to change the Cuban government, she added in an interview with El Nuevo Herald, “but to provide information to an oppressed people.”
“And we will keep doing these programs,” she vowed. “We are trying every which way to penetrate Cuba’s hold on information, to foster a hunger for democracy. But in no way are we calling for regime change.”