Thursday, April 10, 2014

USAID’s Defense of Cuba Program Falls Short

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has responded to criticism of its democracy promotion work in Cuba by insisting that its failed “Cuban Twitter” program was conducted with full oversight, and did not involve sending overtly political messages to subscribers. But remarks by former White House officials, as well as some of the program’s internal documents, suggest otherwise.

In congressional testimony on Tuesday, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah told lawmakers that the agency program, known as ZunZuneo, was completely legal. It had been repeatedly disclosed to members of Congress in a series of reports from 2008 through 2013, he said. Shah also emphasized that the program was aimed at facilitating communication, to “promote information sharing amongst Cubans.”

In a blog post published on Monday, USAID denied that ZunZuneo sought to “funnel political content,” and claims contractors only sent subscribers “news, sports scores, weather, and trivia.” Everything else, according to USAID, was generated by users themselves.

However, the Associated Press -- which broke the story -- has challenged this assertion. The news agency provided an example of at least one message sent to Cuban cell phones which overtly poked fun at government officials, as well as several other drafts that may not have been sent out.

One sent message read: "Latest: Cuban dies of electrical shock from laptop. 'I told you so,' declares a satisfied [Telecommunications Minister] Ramiro. 'Those machines are weapons of the enemy!'" While relatively mild, it still contradicts USAID’s characterization of the program.

Additionally, questions remain as to whether the Obama administration had direct knowledge of the program. In remarks to reporters last week, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney described the ZunZuneo effort as “discreet” and not “covert,” an important distinction considering that covert operations must have presidential approval. In a Newsweek interview published yesterday, former White House National Security Council expert on Latin America Fulton Armstrong said that the administration “had not been briefed on the [USAID’s] regime-change programs, and that the secret operations continued just as they had under Bush-Cheney—aggressive, over-funded, and in obvious need of oversight and review.”

Armstrong also criticized the administration’s handling of secret negotiations with Cuban officials over imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross. According to Armstrong, in 2010 he helped negotiate Gross’ expedited release with Cuba in exchange for a USAID agreement to trim its more aggressive regime change programs. However, Newsweek reports that this deal was subsequently nixed by “die-hard USAID officials,” who insisted that programs would continue unchanged despite support for the reforms among some senior USAID and State Department figures.

Meanwhile, Gross remains committed to a hunger strike that began last week in protest of “shared responsibility” in Washington and Havana over his continued imprisonment. The move has led Cuba’s top Foreign Ministry official for U.S. affairs to release a statement noting officials’ “concern” over the protest, as well as reiterating the government’s willingness to exchange Gross for the three remaining members of the “Cuban Five” held in U.S. prison.


News Briefs
  • Venezuela’s government and leading members of the opposition will sit down this evening as part of negotiations facilitated by UNASUR foreign ministers and a Vatican emissary. Yesterday President Nicolas Maduro sent an official invitation to the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to help mediate, though the opposition has indicated that the current Vatican ambassador will participate in the first meeting today. The talks will be televised live, and opposition leader Henrique Capriles has confirmed that he will join the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition leadership at the dialogue. According to a statement released earlier this week, the MUD will insist on four main agenda items: an amnesty for political prisoners, an independent national truth commission, the de-politicization of key government ministries and the disarmament of militant Chavista collectives. As the Miami Herald reports, however, both sides have taken care to tamper expectations of this initial meeting bringing concrete results.
  • In a post for Venezuela Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde offers some analysis of the opening positions of both the opposition and government, noting that there appears to be little overlap between the two. Both sides will face pressure from their bases not to give in too much, and both risk being labeled “traitors” from extremists in their camps (though this is a greater factor for the opposition). Still, Smilde is cautiously optimistic about the talks’ potential to reduce the country’s political polarization.
  • Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, has a column in the New York Review of Books in which he offers a rebuttal to Maduro’s recent op-ed in the New York Times. Wilkinson takes issue with Maduro’s comparisons of the current protests to the 2002 coup attempt against Hugo Chavez, and describes his government’s continued attacks against press freedom -- which in the case of print media appear to have heightened in recent months.
  • Another left-leaning regional leader, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, has penned a similar op-ed in the English press. Ahead of visits to Harvard and Yale this week at the invitation of university officials, the Ecuadorean leader wrote a column in yesterday's Boston Globe defending his administration’s record on press freedom. In it, Correa claims that the notion of “freedom” promoted by his critics excludes social justice, and asserts that his heavy-handed approach to bad press is part of a battle against those who “seek impunity for media to manipulate the truth.”
  • The AP profiles the ongoing investigation into one of the biggest scandals to hit Mexico’s congress, involving the reportedly common practice of lawmakers skimming off of funds designated to city budgets. While the investigation has so far touched only PAN Congressman Luis Alberto Villarreal, at least eight city leaders elsewhere have said they were approached by lawmakers seeking kickbacks.  
  • Guatemala’s Plaza Publica has an interview with former First Lady Sandra Torres, who is trying to rally the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party for the next elections. But as the news site points out, Torres’ self-described “social democratic” platform relies on the business class for funding, and many of her positions (including maintaining tax exemptions for the maquila sector) seem at odds with her ostensibly center-left orientation.
  • BBC Mundo explores weakening support for Bolivian President Evo Morales among the base organizations that brought him to power in 2005. While polls suggest Morales will easily win reelection in October’s general election, only 45.7 percent of Bolivians say they would vote for him, a figure lower than either of his previous victories in 2005 and 2009.
  • The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has released its latest Global Study on Homicide, as well as a website providing useful graphs and diagrams comparing homicide rates around the world. The study suggests that the Americas has overtaken Africa as the region with the largest number of homicides, with the hemisphere accounting for roughly one-third of all murders. Some 30 percent of homicides in the Americas can be traced to organized crime, according to the report. As Reuters notes, Honduras and Venezuela are the top two most violent countries, according to 2012 homicide statistics.
  • Argentina has been hit by a massive 24-hour strike organized by its largest labor unions today, in protest of rising inflation and a  government cap on wage increases. The Wall Street Journal points out that the strike is being led by Hugo Moyano, head of the largest Argentine labor federation and a onetime Kirchner ally.
  • The Argentine government yesterday carried out a massive “mega-operation” in the port city of Rosario, involving 3,000 officers and some 90 raids throughout the city, La Nacion reports. The AP notes that Security Minister Sergio Berni described it as the largest anti-drug operation in the country’s history.