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.