The U.S. Agency for International Development has a long history of funding democracy-building programs in Latin America and around the world — even in countries like Cuba, where it isn’t welcome.
It’s always been a delicate balancing act because promoting democracy can sometimes be perceived as meddling in internal politics and spark a backlash against USAID-supported programs that are supposed to open political space, protect human rights and support civil society.
But the recently disclosed USAID program to create a secret Twitter-like network in Cuba, run through front companies with the goal of evading strict Cuban government controls on the flow of information, highlights how the distinctions between democracy-building and politics can become muddled.
“USAID may have some excellent programs around the world, but the problem here is that anything dealing with Cuba becomes politicized and in my opinion there was very little oversight of it,” said Andy Gomez, a retired University of Miami Cuba scholar and now senior policy adviser for Washington law firm Poblete Tamargo.
The Associated Press reported last week that USAID established the network called ZunZuneo — Cuban slang for the sound of a hummingbird — as a text-messaging service that began gearing up in late 2009 and reached at least 40,000 subscribers before funding ran out in September 2012. USAID, however, says the number was around 68,000 at its peak.
The plan, according to AP, was to start with “non-controversial” content to build subscribers to the network, which was never identified as funded by the U.S. government, and then introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize in mass demonstrations that could perhaps trigger a Cuban spring.
But Gomez said the program was ill-conceived and fraught with problems.
At one point, he said, Creative Associates International, the Washington, D.C., contractor that worked on the ZunZuneo program, sought his opinion. “I knew what they were doing and I advised them what I thought young people would be interested in. I was very clear: Don’t politicize it and don’t provide information about overthrowing the government.”
Gomez, who was not paid for his advice, suggested Cubans would be interested in general news — “problems in the world, how people in the rest of the world live.”
USAID has taken issue with AP’s assertion that the program was designed to encourage smart mobs or funnel political content that could trigger unrest.
“The purpose of the ZunZuneo project was to create a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves, period,” USAID said in a statement, adding that tech news, sports scores, weather and trivia were sent out initially but then Cubans began to generate their own conversations.
However, Alen Lauzan Falcon, a Cuban satirical artist living in Chile who was subcontracted to write messages for ZunZuneo, told AP that he does only political work. AP said documents it obtained showed some of the early messages sent to Cuban cellphones were overtly political.
Despite USAID’s original assertion that no messages were politically charged, a State Department spokeswoman said Wednesday that USAID is now looking into whether any of the messages were political and if so, whether they were drafts or actually sent. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee also plans to review the program.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont told USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah during a Congressional hearing Tuesday that the program was a “cockamamie” idea. But members of South Florida’s Cuban-American delegation have been supportive.
“The real question here is why does the press and some in our Congressional family demonize these programs,” said South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
“There is no independent press in Cuba. There is complete control over the Cuban airwaves and programming on television and the press to promote the political propaganda spewed by the dictatorship,” she said.
“Clearly those who defend the program are right that people should have access to information and technology in Cuba, and it’s hard to defend the Cuban government for clamping down,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
“But Cuba is a very special case,” he said. “You really have to ask yourself how smart the program was and what it hoped to accomplish. There is a role for these democracy-building programs, but in Cuba, it is just so tainted.”
Some analysts also questioned whether keeping Cuban users of ZunZuneo in the dark about the origin of the program could have potentially put them at risk.
“There’s often been blow-back when the United States tries to help people,’’ said Ted Henken, a Baruch College professor who has studied Cuban bloggers. “The people you’re helping need to know who you are” so they can evaluate whether they want to take risks.
Matthew Herrick, a USAID spokesman, said the agency needs to maintain a “discreet profile” in countries where it might not be welcome to minimize risk to its staffers and partners. “But discreet does not equal covert,” he added. “USAID’s work in Cuba is not unlike what we and other donors do around the world to connect people who have been cut off from the outside world by repressive or authoritarian governments.”
Henken defends the right of those outside the island to help the Cuban people. But he said the short-term effect of the ZunZuneo disclosures will be to “put activists in Cuba more under the microscope than they are already. It reduces the oxygen for them and allows Cuba to play the threat card.”
He said it could also jeopardize the impending launch of Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez’s digital newspaper. While he thinks Sánchez has too high a profile internationally for the Cuban government to touch her, Henken said “they could crack down on those who associate with her.”
The ZunZuneo program was gearing up for launch just as USAID subcontractor Alan Gross was arrested in Havana in December 2009 for distributing satellite equipment to link with the Internet. A Cuban court ruled that the intent of Gross’ activities was to undermine the government and he was sentenced to 15 years.
Despite Gross’ imprisonment, USAID pressed ahead with ZunZuneo.
When Gross learned of the ZunZuneo program last week he told his attorney it was the “final straw,” prompting him to begin a hunger strike until he is released. “I am fasting to object to mistruths, deceptions, and inaction by both governments,’’ Gross said.
“I don’t see how the ZunZuneo disclosures can make his release any easier,” Shifter said. “This strengthens the position of the hardliners in Havana and gives them ammunition to say, how can we loosen-up or relax when the United States wants to topple this government?”
“The huge irony is that a program that was supposed to support democracy, which is all about good governance and transparency, was delivered by deceptive means,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and senior director of Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.
Even though the general public might associate USAID more with humanitarian programs and disaster assistance, it has engaged in democracy-building programs around the world with varying degrees of success for decades.
Sometimes the programs have landed the agency in hot water.
In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, it partnered with the CIA’s Office of Public Safety to train foreign police forces in 17 countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
After concerns were raised about U.S. funds being used to train officers in authoritarian regimes that used torture against political prisoners, Congress passed legislation in 1973 and 1974 to stop U.S. assistance to foreign law enforcement forces except when it dealt with narcotics control.
But during the controversial 1990-2000 presidency of Alberto Fujimori, USAID “was very supportive of pro-democracy groups in Peru,” said Shifter. “It was useful to help them create some political space in a situation where the president essentially controlled everything.”
Shifter also said some USAID-sponsored democracy building programs in Ecuador have been effective and professional.
But late last year, Ecuador announced that USAID, which has worked in the country for 50 years, was no longer welcome because U.S. authorities failed to sign a bilateral cooperation agreement that regulates foreign aid. In a statement, USAID said its pullout later this year would jeopardize $32 million in projects.
President Rafael Correa had long accused the agency of supporting his political foes through its democracy building and free-speech programs.
The announcement followed the decision by Bolivian President Evo Morales to boot USAID last May.
But Herrick said USAID is committed to working in difficult environments: “The closure of a USAID mission does not mean an end to our support for democracy, human rights and governance in that country. It may mean a change in approach, such as moving to new, innovative platforms to support civil society, or virtual and third-country training instead of in-country.”
In the wake of the ZunZuneo debate, Gomez said he’d like to see more innovative and effective democracy programs for Cuba.
Cuban democracy programs were established in 1996 under the Helms-Burton Act, which tightened the embargo and seeks to encourage a regime change in Cuba. In recent years the programs have received $15 million to $20 million in annual funding.
To be effective, Cuba democracy programs need to be “well-adapted to the local social and political contexts,’’ Feinberg said, “and lot of them fail to meet this test.”
“I’m hoping that ZunZuneo will lead to a careful rethinking of how Cuban democracy funds can be re-channeled to programs that can lead to meaningful change on the island,’’ said Gomez.
Miami Herald Staff Writer Jim Wyss contributed to this report.