Shadow Government

There's Nothing Sinister or Unique about USAID's Cuba Program

Critics of U.S. policy towards Cuba are in high dudgeon over an Associated Press "blockbuster" story on an attempt by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to fund the start-up of a rudimentary Twitter network in Cuba. We are being led to believe that somehow the United States got "caught" in some sort of rogue "covert action" in Cuba, bringing us back to the "bad old days" of poisoned cigars and exploding shellfish targeting Fidel Castro.

Long-time embargo opponent Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), for example, went before the cameras to ask the U.S. government, "What in heaven's name are you thinking?"

I'll tell you what they were thinking, as I was intimately involved in USAID's Cuba Democracy Program in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration. Back then, Congress had just tripled the program's funding and our task was to leverage the social media revolution to break down the Castro regime's wall of censorship placed between ordinary Cubans and the outside world, and between Cubans themselves. Our goal was to help create pockets of freedom for the Cuban people, in which their every thought and word would not be monitored by the Castro regime.

We knew that if there is one thing that dictatorial regimes feared more than freedom of expression, it was freedom of assembly. That is why the Castro regime keeps Cuba's dissident community atomized. We wanted to take advantage of modern communications technology denied to Cubans to put them in touch with one another sans government censorship. If they wanted to discuss politics or weather it made no difference; the goal was to facilitate communication amongst them. (Although the Cuba Democracy Program was subsequently downgraded and revamped by the Obama administration, the technology focus of the Bush administration remained for some time.)

Of course, there was risk. Everyone understood the challenges and dangers of implementing such programs in a police state. But at the same time, everyone involved knew it was the right thing to do if the United States stood for anything at all in the world. (The later arrest of Alan Gross involved a mistake that should not have happened.) That the programs were implemented discreetly was precisely to protect peoples' lives. The Castro regime has been abusing the Cuban people for five decades; no one was about to advocate advertising the details of what we were trying to accomplish on the island.

In any case, critics of U.S. policy towards Cuba have consistently mischaracterized the Cuba Democracy Program as something sinister or unprecedented. In fact, there is nothing sinister or unique about the program, which is administered by both the State Department and USAID. It is what is known within the bureaucracy as a "cross-border program" into a non-presence country -- meaning we are trying to help support people living in repressive states in which we have no local development office. There are, or have been, at least six other countries in which the U.S. government runs similar cross-border programs.

Frankly, the only thing unique about the program is the level of scrutiny and criticism to which it has been subjected. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) has argued as much. "They're trying to say that somehow it's a bad idea to help people where Twitter and Facebook are illegal because the governments are so repressive. That's bad?" he told USA Today. "I'm hoping we're doing that everywhere. I'm hoping we're doing that in North Korea, in Iran."

Indeed, singling out one program over any of the others betrays a political motivation that undercuts the critics' arguments -- that their opposition is based more on the fact that it is viewed as an impediment to U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, because the Castro regime vehemently opposes it.

The United States has made a commitment to the Cuban people through its democracy support. And the fact that the biggest challenge to the program, other than the difficult environment, is that Cubans continue to request more and more material support to expand their independence is the best testimony to keeping the program alive.

ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Venezuela's Street Protests Are Headed to a Violent End -- and Cuba is to Blame

While the conflict in Ukraine continues to preoccupy the minds of most U.S. policymakers and pundits, two months of violent street protests have racked Venezuela, a country much closer to home and where the United States has strategic interests that are just as significant. Between its important role in the global oil supply chain and its emergence as a key narcotics trafficking corridor, what happens in Venezuela matters to the United States.

Last week, President Nicolás Maduro announced the arrest of three Air Force generals who he accused of plotting to overthrow his government. This time, it doesn't appear to be just one more of his loony conspiracy theories -- it is well known that the Venezuelan military is divided over the disastrous direction of the country under Hugo Chávez's hand-picked successor. 

Indeed, it is clear Maduro cannot rely on the military to confront the protestors. Instead he has had to use poorly trained National Guardsmen and paramilitary thugs operating outside any institutional channels. How much longer others in the military will tolerate the chaos in the streets is probably the biggest the question in Venezuela today -- there simply appears to be no other viable resolution. The spontaneous street protests that began in early February were a reaction to 15 years of intolerant and polarizing chavista rule in which all outlets for the peaceful expression of dissent were systematically shut off to half of the population.

Maduro now claims he wants to have "a dialogue" with the protestors, but that is merely a stalling tactic designed for international consumption. He considers the protestors "fascists" and their grievances illegitimate. Besides, it is unclear just who to "dialogue" with -- the protests are not a creation of the organized opposition, and no one controls the off switch.

Moreover, Maduro doesn't need a staged dialogue to resolve the crisis; the grievances are known to anyone who has read an article about Venezuela in the past year. Even he can figure that one out. First, he should demobilize and disarm the paramilitary groups and cease with the incendiary rhetoric against his fellow citizens. Then he could unilaterally quell the tensions by committing to credible and irreversible reforms that would restore to those who disagree with the government the institutional channels to express dissent. This would mean reforming the subservient Supreme Court, the electoral authority, the legislature, and the media, while at the same time reducing the state's stranglehold on the private sector so it can start to replenish empty consumer shelves.

The problem is that such reforms are anathema to Maduro's Cuban minders, who exert inordinate influence over his decisions -- a dynamic that remains one of the protestors' primary grievances. The Cubans know that they, along with the $6 billion a year in Venezuelan giveaways to the mendicant Castro brothers, are hugely unpopular and rightly see an end to such benefits, including two-thirds of the island's oil needs, as an existential threat. To cede any ground to the opposition directly threatens the survival of the Castro regime. The violence will continue in Venezuela because the Cubans cannot have it any other way. 

With no meaningful changes in the chavista model expected, no international intercession on the horizon, and the Obama administration MIA, instability in Venezuela will continue careering forward. No one should be surprised then if sectors of the military intervene to restore order. Such a turn of events would, of course, be far from ideal, but let's not cry crocodile tears about the bad old days of military coups in Latin America when Venezuelans are dying today in the streets, and no one else is lifting a finger to bring the carnage to an end.

FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images