Wednesday, August 6, 2014

One more chapter in USAID's covert action adventures

On Monday AP reported on yet another case where USAID attempts to beat Cuban intelligence services at its own game on its own turf. (AP provides its long report here, a shorter one here, a five-point summation here, a video report here, and selected documents here.)

The new programs described by AP – where USAID sends Latin Americans into Cuba to raise the political consciousness of Cuban youth – raise issues not very different from those that came to light when Alan Gross was arrested five years ago. Those issues were addressed then by Mauricio Vicent of El Pais and by me before we even knew Mr. Gross’ name. So I’ll note just a few things.

First, USAID continues to be very prickly about the term “covert operations.” However, the agency is not bashful about asserting that it will continue to operate in Cuba by sending in operatives who don’t disclose their U.S. government connection, not even to the Cubans with whom they work, as its spokesman’s statement makes clear. What USAID wants is the option of operating covertly with none of the responsibilities of agencies that do so professionally. They have lost former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, no softie on Cuba, who says he likes the programs “in principle,” but “this strikes me as a bunch of teenagers playing at covert political activity, and that’s dangerous.” On the comical side, the editors of Investor’s Business Daily attacked the AP for exposing the USAID program, but their editorial calls it a CIA program seven times, which is a natural, if dumb, mistake to make if you don’t read the AP story closely. But it’s not fair to the CIA.

In contrast to other USAID operations, this one did include training for operatives who traveled to Cuba – coded phrases to signal distress, etc. Not that it did any good. In the case of a Costa Rican organization that ran a HIV/AIDS seminar in Santa Clara, a state security agent was present and questioned the operatives and was apparently content to observe them and allow them to go on their way. AP reports that this project fell apart when a Costa Rican traveled later to Cuba to bring money to some Cubans. The Costa Rican organization took issue with AP’s reporting; see here and here. 

Like the fake Twitter program called ZunZuneo that AP described last April, the USAID programs in this week’s reporting do not involve assisting political dissidents. Rather, they use the contractor Creative Associates to reach average Cubans and to move them toward political action.

ZunZuneo surveyed its subscribers to gauge their political leanings. In the newly disclosed programs, the Costa Rican organization was one of several that contacted Cuban students and student organizations. The idea, its documents state, is to show the value of organizing to address social concerns, and the hope was that this idea would catch on and spread across Cuba in later phases of the program. In that sense, USAID told AP, the advertised purpose of the HIV/AIDS seminar, health care education, was merely a “secondary benefit.” The main goal was to build civil society organizations in Cuba.

USAID, in its world of its own, doesn’t seem troubled by the idea that health programs worldwide, including those run by Americans who operate in good faith and who do not soak up taxpayer money, and also including USAID health programs, might be affected by the news that USAID operates health programs under false pretenses.

And I continue to believe that Cuban citizens deserve more respect from the U.S. government. If they are brought into a U.S. government program, particularly one that is inherently political right down to its founding statute, they deserve to know. The financial wellspring of these programs, the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, aims to overturn Cuba’s political order. Agree or not with that aim, it’s something that Cuban “targets”  deserve to know especially when the agency running the programs is incapable of concealing its role.

But we have been through this before.

One wonders whether we’ll go through it again. The newly disclosed programs were carried out after Alan Gross was arrested, which would seem to indicate a decision by the Obama Administration that this modus operandi is just fine.

Another similarity between Zunzuneo and these more recent programs is that they are based on the idea that Cuba’s dissidents are ineffective.

AP reports that the Costa Rica-based manager of Creative Associates’ programs was Javier Utset. Utset is author of a 2008 assessment of the Cuban dissident movement. Reading it now, it sounds like the theoretical foundation for the programs he would later run. Excerpts:

“While Cubans desire change, they are generally too atomized, apathetic, or fearful to demand it and they see no available platforms to pursue it. Up to date, the movement has not been effective at engaging average Cubans as active constituencies for change…[The movement has] been generally unable to incorporate the average citizen as active supporters.

“Of particular note is the disconnect from receptive social sectors such as the youth.

“The [opposition activists’] ‘martyr mindset’ dismisses the general population as a player in the equation for power. It contributes to create a strong social bond between fellow activists based on trust, loyalty, and camaraderie. That social bond strengthens the core but weakens the links to the average citizen…The opposition’s strategy should seek to impact government policy not only through direct confrontation, but also by incorporating broad-based citizen engagement effecting targeted pressure on the government to change behavior. Ultimately, no nonviolent social movement stands a chance against an authoritarian system until it wins the willful participation of the average citizen.

“The movement’s message has remained basic and static: freedom, human rights, and democracy…Short-term, ‘bread and butter’ concerns such as housing, food availability, and transportation are in the minds of most Cubans. Thus, focusing on highly political issues that are detached from the daily experiences of regular Cubans may be considered a strategic weakness.”

Finally, there’s a lot of outrage about AP’s reporting from the USAID program’s supporters, in and out of Congress. There’s outrage that AP did the reporting at all, as in the editorial cited above. And there’s also a general assertion that these programs are good because their goal is good, with no consideration of effectiveness, even after the failure of the Alan Gross program, ZunZuneo, and now this one. That’s an easy position to take if you’re not the one in jail, and if your money isn’t at stake in programs that Cuban security services see coming and going.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Illegal, but was it wrong?

The French bank BNP Paribas will pay nearly $9 billion in penalties for violating U.S. sanctions against Iran, Sudan, and Cuba (Herald).

I’ll leave Iran and Sudan out of it and focus on Cuba for this latest case of our tax dollars at work in the application of the U.S. embargo.

There is no doubt that the bank’s actions were illegal. In the Treasury Department’s lingo, it moved funds “in which the Cuban government has an interest” through the U.S. banking system and it handled dollar transactions for Cuba. In the electronic tags attached to those transfers of funds, it concealed the fact that they involved Cuba transactions. Treasury tends to catch things like that, as some bank personnel warned, and it did catch them in this case. Hence the penalty.

But what did this bank actually do? Prosecutors explain in this summary.

The Cuba section explains that the embargo began with executive actions in 1960 and 1962 based on the U.S. government’s judgment that the Cuban government posed a threat to “U.S. national and hemispheric security,” and based on that, sanctions were applied under the Trading with the Enemy Act.

The “conspiracy,” the prosecutors explain, involved the bank’s operation of credit facilities for Cuban entities between 2000 and 2010.

Over the course of six years, from 2004 to 2010, $1.7 billion was transacted. That’s roughly the amount of U.S. farm exports to Cuba over a similar period.

Only two examples of transactions are given: “loans to a Dutch company to finance the purchase of crude oil products destined to be refined and sold to Cuba” and loans for “one of Cuba’s largest state-owned commercial companies,” which sounds like Cimex, but no detail is given about the company or the loan’s purpose. That’s it. There’s no suggestion of any commercial activity that threatens “U.S. national and hemispheric security.”

To prosecutors, the purpose of the transactions doesn’t matter because it’s illegal to move money connected to Cuba, period.

But as a foreign policy matter, for all we know the United States brought this case against a bank that was financing routine imports to Cuba – food, consumer goods, construction materials, etc.

This is the embargo at work under President Obama, who talks about the need to be “thoughtful” and “creative” in Cuba policy, and who likes to imply that our policy is an anachronism that needs to be fixed. Meanwhile, he mainly continues to carry out his predecessors’ policies. He continues to apply general pressure on the Cuban economy, with a special focus on international financial transactions. His policies make imports and credit more difficult and expensive for Cubans, and in this case he causes a conflict with a major European bank and an allied government, without even explaining how anyone’s interests were harmed by the credits extended to Cuba. Maybe one day he will explain how this serves our national interest.

Monday, June 23, 2014


“It’s not just that 40 Cuban and American personalities have asked Barack Obama to ease the embargo against Cuba. It’s that the powerful Chamber of Commerce of the United States traveled to Havana and returned delighted; it’s that ex-Governor Charlie Crist also wants to go to the legendary capital and lift the embargo; it’s that Tampa doesn’t know what to do to to be closer to Havana and and wants to start a ferry. It’s Fanjul’s calculated statements, the memoirs of Hillary Clinton, and now the poll. What to say about the poll, because polls are like appearances of the virgin: some fall to their knees and others say it’s a hallucination. I say that it is a serious indication that there winds of change not only in the relations between Washington and Havana, but also in Miami.

“It is true that there are moral and ideological reasons to oppose Washington, as they say, ‘giving oxygen to the dictatorship.’ But the Cuban political exile community long ago delivered the solution to its national problem to the United States. And the interests of this exile community, whether beneficial or not for the Cuban nation, need not coincide with those of Washington.


“There is no reason to fear accepting and evaluating the facts of Cuban reality, both the good and the bad. The bad are repeated every day. But the others are not. Yes, there is a change in Cuba toward new forms of production. Today the Cuban public is freer socially and economically than two years ago, freer to travel, to emigrate and if they don’t like it, to return; with more rights in entrepreneurship and property than at any time since 1968; government opponents leave and return to their homes in Havana. Raul Castro says that he’s putting everything on the table to negotiate with the United States. Is there an internal debate, no less important for being outside the official media, over the future of the country? Why negate it and insist that all this is nothing more than a pantomime?

“In the standard and acceptable narrative about the Cuban state, its power is on the edge of the abyss. A never-ending abyss into which it never falls. Because the criminal hand of Castro blocks it. That narrative is unchanged for the past half-century. But in the past 23 years that government survived the fall of the Soviet bloc and strengthened its influence in Latin America; since 2007 it has been off the list of human rights violators and for 22 years has managed to have the UN condemn the U.S. embargo. Is that government weaker than in the spring of 1991? No. In the equation to understand its power, there are other crucial factors than those considered in the repeated anti-Castro narrative. In 1996 they rejected Clinton’s olive branch because they were weak, now they are seeking it because they are not.

“The 61 years that have passed since the Moncada attack are an indelible part of Cuban reality and history. There is no way to make them disappear and it would not be right to do so. The same applies to the 57 years of the Republic. This is, whether we like it or not in Miami or in Havana, the history of the Cuban people. There is no other. It carries on by the friendly or terrible hand of a powerful neighbor whom it is as dangerous to idolize as to look down upon. Let’s not continue turning our backs on ourselves.”

   – Jorge Davila Miguel, in Friday’s Nuevo Herald