Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Obama and Cuba

In The American Conservative, an article of mine on Obama's opportunity.

Friday, December 12, 2014


In Diario de Cuba, a reader comments on an essay by Carlos Alberto Montaner:

“Consult the many testimonies published by Cubans who were victims of procedures used by State Security to obtain information and you will realize two things: 1) that procedures less serious than those used by the CIA in its interrogations are characterized as torture; and 2) that the State Security agents that have used those procedures deny systematically that such procedures constitute torture.”

Montaner, in his essay:

“Supposedly, the prevailing values in the United States are those that consecrate compassion and respect for the integrity of the individual. One expects fascism, Nazism, or communism, which justify anything in the service of their bloody utopias, to resort to torture, but not a liberal democracy.”

Thursday, December 11, 2014

USAID's junior covert action officers ride again

Thanks to new reporting from the Associated Press, and thanks to cooperation from whoever is providing documents on U.S. government programs in Cuba, we now know of another failed adventure of USAID’s covert action that began in 2009: an attempt to steer Cuban hip-hop into creating “youth networks for social change” and that would constitute a political challenge to the Cuban government.

The operation was run by Xavier Utset, who worked for USAID contractor Creative Associates in an office in Costa Rica. The idea was to replicate a Serbian social movement from a decade before that involved youth, music, and anti-Milosevic politics. A Serbian music promoter was hired to work with Cuban rappers. Funding was done through a Panamanian shell company headed by a lawyer in Liechtenstein. The promoter, Rajko Bozic, got to work in Cuba, presenting himself to Cuban artists as someone who works in alternative media and marketing. In the course of the program, only one Cuban was told that the U.S. government was behind it.

Pity the USAID spokesman who has to issue statements like this, from yesterday: “Any assertions that our work is secret or covert are simply false.”

Covert action is defined in U.S. law as “activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.” Which is precisely what USAID has been doing.

But to accept that it’s covert action involves more than semantics. It would imply USAID having to run programs competently, starting with assessments of feasibility that would fall apart as soon as its cast of amateurs were revealed. It would imply coordination, such as stopping Alan Gross from traveling to Cuba with satellite equipment in December 2009, just one month after the Serb Bozic was detained as he entered Cuba with “all of Best Buy on his back,” as a contractor described it to AP. And it would imply a leadership that takes responsibility for operatives who get in trouble rather than issuing drivel like this or this.

A few more points:

This program was conceived and funded during the Bush Administration and carried out at the beginning of President Obama’s first term. The Obama people seem not to have taken stock of USAID’s operations in Cuba. That non-decision now looms as a big decision with important foreign policy consequences and one man in jail.

This program collapsed in part because, like Alan Gross, its operatives traveled to Cuba with laptops that were the equivalent of their filing cabinets, giving Cuban intelligence access to their contracts, program documents, and U.S. government affiliation. This is what I mean by “amateur.” And as with the Alan Gross and ZunZuneo projects, the money was one hundred percent wasted.

Through this operation, USAID harmed civil society in Cuba. It gave Cuban security services reason to increase vigilance on hip-hop and other aspects of genuine civil society because they were being targeted by a foreign government’s political programs. The main target, the rappers Los Aldeanos, no longer live in Cuba. USAID compromised an independent Cuban music festival and tried to influence covertly the concert organized by the Colombian artist Juanes. The Cuban confidant now works at a Papa John’s in Miami.

It is profoundly disrespectful to Cuban citizens to enlist their participation in U.S. programs without disclosing the U.S. role or purpose, and it’s patronizing for USAID to claim it’s for their protection. In the case of the rappers Los Aldeanos, their training was intended “to focus them a little more on their role as agents of social mobilization,” the program manager said. This mentality views Cuban civil society as ours to shape, with the Cubans involved having no right to know our role.

If you wonder why the U.S. government would go to such lengths, the answer is that for all its talk about the effectiveness of Cuba’s dissidents, the assessment in private was different. Utset himself published in 2008 an analysis that credited the dissidents’ ability “to exert influence on the state of relations between the Cuban government and the international community” but doubted their ability “to build a broad-based movement and influence State-society relations.” The dissidents “have been largely unable to establish strong connections with the broader population and successfully appeal for its active engagement,” he wrote.

In other words, it was determined that the Cuban people needed a big push and lots of training from the United States to put themselves on the path to self-determination.

Coverage of other USAID adventures is here and here.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Mr. Gross' five long years

You’ve got to hand it to President Bush and his people. They had a policy toward Cuba, they knew what they wanted to do, and they made nearly every instrument of U.S. policy fit their aims. It may have had a few faults at the level of basic strategy, beginning with its perception of actual political conditions in Cuba, but it was a serious policy and it was well explained.

President Obama, in contrast, took some positive steps but left much of the Bush approach in place, in some cases without really thinking about it. Exhibit one is Alan Gross, who has now been in jail in Cuba for five years.

Mr. Gross, the hapless businessman contracted to work on USAID democracy programs, traveled to Cuba five times during President Obama’s first year to install hard-to-detect satellite Internet systems with WiFi hotspots.

By all accounts, Obama officials were not aware of his activities, U.S. diplomats in Havana were not aware that he was in town, and they appear not to have been aware of his activities when they made their first consular visit. (A new task needs to be added to the presidential transition manual: Day One – After CIA covert action briefing, get briefed on USAID covert operations too.)

In our first post about Mr. Gross here in December 2009 we called him “Mr. Smith.” Since then, his identity became well known, he was tried and convicted, and Cuba’s version eventually came out, summarized at length here. He gave an interview to CNN in 2012 where he explained what he was doing: “I was contracted by a company in Bethesda, Maryland to bring some off-the-shelf equipment to test to see if it worked in Cuba. I decided that I would at the same time try to improve the computer system within the Jewish community.” The Herald provides more detail here, and everything on this blog about him is here.

With other programs backfiring in Cuba, and with Congressional pressure, USAID seems to have gotten out of the covert operations business in Cuba.

The Alan Gross program was a predictable failure, it ended up a complete waste of money except to the Cuban security services who received some nice satellite equipment, and it has cost an American his liberty for the past five years. But to its political supporters it seems a perfect program. Even a catastrophe such as Mr. Gross’ arrest provides a cudgel with which to bash both governments: Cuba’s for arresting him, and the U.S. government for considering any change in our posture toward Cuba as long as he’s in jail.

That sounds harsh, but how else to interpret the calls from Senator Menendez and other for Gross’ unilateral and unconditional release, and nothing else?

A unilateral release would be wonderful. But in the covert operations business that’s a pie-in-the-sky option when an operative gets caught red-handed, regardless of the virtues we ascribe to his activity. The whole point of operating covertly is to carry out activities that you know the local government opposes, and that can get you arrested.

Bargaining becomes a cost of doing business when an operation goes sour – that is, if you have a sense of responsibility to your own operative. This is an alien concept to USAID, which asserts the completely irrelevant point that Mr. Gross is not an intelligence officer, and which believes that its inherent goodness both allows it to engage in covert operations, and to do so in a way where the rules of that game don’t apply.

The United States sent $53 million in food and medicine to Cuba in 1962 to obtain the release of Cuban Americans captured in the Bay of Pigs invasion. No one complained. Since then there have been other exchanges of prisoners with Cuba, all documented in this fine new book by William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh. In 2012 the United States paid $4.6 million to Egypt, a country that receives $1 billion in U.S. assistance annually, to obtain the release of 16 Americans carrying out U.S. government democracy programs. No one complained; Senator McCain even visited Egypt to participate in the diplomacy. Last May, the Obama Administration obtained the release of an American soldier by freeing five Taliban prisoners. No one complained, except to insist that the freed Taliban would remain off the battlefield.

No one celebrates concessions such as these; some can even be called unjust, but they are a price paid to free people to which the United States has a sense of responsibility. Even superpowers need to cut their losses now and then.

Mr. Gross no longer receives visits from U.S. diplomats. Presumably he got tired of thanking them for the food and magazines, asking what they are doing to get him out, and hearing nothing in return.

If President Obama has a sense of responsibility to this man who carried out a mission on his watch, he needs to bargain. Those who will complain about costly concessions should have thought about that those costs before they sent our foreign assistance agency bumbling into the covert action business.