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Experts Debate Repercussions of USAID's Cuba Democracy Push
The Washington Diplomat / May 2014

By Larry Luxner

Alan Gross, a 64-year-old Maryland subcontractor who’s been jailed in Cuba since 2009, might have been a free man today had the U.S. Agency for International Development — which indirectly employed Gross at the time of his arrest — not continued its aggressive program to “promote democracy” on the communist island.

At least that’s what a former CIA expert on Latin America and aide to Secretary of State John Kerry is telling the media.

In an interview with Newsweek, Fulton Armstrong claimed that in 2010, he — along with his counterpart on the staff of Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — had gotten USAID to agree to back off from some of its more aggressive Cuba programs. Such a deal, Armstrong expected, would entice Havana into finally releasing Gross, which in turn would substantially improve the chilly atmosphere that had come to define the U.S.-Cuba relationship in recent years.

But that never happened. On the contrary, USAID stepped up its anti-Castro activities, which included the creation of a secret Cuban Twitter-like program known as ZunZuneo (Spanish for “hummingbird.”) The Associated Press broke the ZunZuneo story on April 3, reporting that its users in Cuba were never told about Washington’s role in the text message-based cellphone service aimed at undermining the Castro regime.

On April 10, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a vocal Castro opponent, demanded that USAID turn over all records having to do with ZunZuneo as part of a broader review of the agency’s civil-society efforts worldwide.

“I’d like to get a full sense of all your democracy programs, beyond the Internet as well, because we’re going to judge all of those in context,” Mendendez told USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah at a Washington hearing.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), who advocates lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba, said USAID’s involvement in the program was “ill-advised” even though it might have been legal. “Do we want to continue to fund programs like this that, in my view, might put other USAID contractors or individuals from other countries, including Cuba, that participate in this program in danger?” he asked.

“Dumb, dumb, dumb,” was how Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) described the program after Shah dodged his question about who initiated the idea for the social network, saying he did not “specifically know.”

The fallout from the AP story was so great that USAID was compelled to post a counter-article, “Eight Facts About ZunZuneo,” on its website.

The AP story, it said, “contained significant inaccuracies and false conclusions about ZunZuneo, which was part of a broader effort that began in 2009 to facilitate ‘twitter-like’ communication among Cubans so they could connect with each other on topics of their choice. Many of the inaccuracies have been re-reported by other news outlets, perpetuating the original narrative, or worse.”

Among other things, USAID says that at its peak, ZunZuneo had around 68,000 users — not the 40,000 reported by AP.

It added: ‘The article suggested that USAID spent years on a ‘covert’ program to gather personal information to be used for political purposes to ‘foment smart mobs’ and start a ‘Cuban spring’ to overthrow the Cuban government. It makes for an interesting read, but it’s not true.”

Matt Herrick, who wrote the counter-article posted on USAID’s website, also denied allegations that a shell company was formed in Spain to run ZunZuneo, or that funding was “publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan,” implying that funds were somehow misappropriated.

“No one affiliated with the ZunZuneo program established a private company in Spain as part of this program. The project sought to do so if it was able to attract private investors to support the effort after USAID funding ended. Private investment was never identified, and thus no company was ever formed,” Herrick wrote. “All funds for this project were congressionally appropriated for democracy programs in Cuba, and that information is publicly available.”

USAID, which oversees an annual budget exceeding $20 billion, spends roughly $20 million a year — less than one-thousandth of the total — on its various Cuba democracy initiatives. Yet few things infuriate Havana’s communist regime more than U.S. taxpayer-funded programs like ZunZuneo which it claims seek to circumvent state propaganda by bringing news — with a decidedly anti-Castro point of view — directly to the Cuban people.

James K. Glassman, chairman of Public Affairs Engagement LLC, knows all about beaming the U.S. point of view to a Cuban audience. During the last two years of the George W. Bush administration, he was chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which among other things directed the Office of Cuba Broadcasting — creators of the controversial Radio Martí and TV Martí.

Glassman told The Washington Diplomat that while “the Cubans do have access to some information, it’s a real shame what’s going on” given the outrage over ZunZuneo by certain members of Congress.

“In general, the program is a good one. The question of whether USAID ought to be involved is another matter,” said Glassman, who also served the 41st president as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. “In my view, there are other government agencies as well as private organizations that are much more appropriate to handle this kind of venture. I don’t think this is USAID’s area of expertise.”

The Gross family is even more outraged.

Scott Gilbert, a Washington attorney representing Gross, said his client launched a week-long hunger strike upon learning of the existence of the ZunZuneo program, which at any rate ended in 2011 due to a lack of funding.

“Once Alan was arrested, it is shocking that USAID would imperil his safety even further by running a covert operation in Cuba,” Gilbert said in a statement released April 18. “USAID has made one absurdly bad decision after another. Running this program is contrary to everything we have been told by high-level representatives of the Obama administration about USAID’s activities in Cuba.”

Gross issued his own statement from prison, telling news media that “I am fasting to object to mistruths, deceptions and inaction by both governments, not only regarding their shared responsibility for my arbitrary detention, but also because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal. Once again, I am calling on President Obama to get personally involved in ending this stand-off so that I can return home to my wife and daughters.”

Mavis Anderson, who heads the anti-embargo Latin America Working Group, said in an email that the White House and USAID “have made various public statements showing sympathy and kind thoughts for Mr. Gross and his family” while urging Cuba to unconditionally release the USAID subcontractor on humanitarian grounds.

“But they have yet to accept responsibility for placing Mr. Gross in Cuba in the first place. Alan Gross was carrying out a USAID-funded program to create a subversive Internet connection for Cubans. Unilaterally demanding Mr. Gross’s release has been unsuccessful for the past four years. Now is the time for the U.S. government to sit down with the Cuban government, without preconditions, and talk about securing Mr. Gross’s return to his family in the United States.”

The Washington Office on Latin America took things a step further.

“USAID’s ‘discreet’ democracy promotion programs are counterproductive, irresponsible and a waste of U.S. government resources,” said Marc Hanson, WOLA’s senior associate for Cuba. “They put at risk those that implement them — such as Alan Gross — as well as their beneficiaries in Cuba. They provide the Cuban government with a rationale to suppress dissent, claiming that all dissidents are mercenaries financed by the U.S. government. They weaken the standing of independent reformers inside of Cuba and achieve nothing in terms of change inside Cuba.”

Gross, whose Maryland company had a USAID contract to provide Internet access to Cuba’s tiny Jewish community, was arrested on Dec. 3, 2009, on suspicion of subversive activities. He had made four previous trips to Cuba on behalf of his employer, Bethesda-based Development Associates International, bearing sophisticated computer gear designed to let Cubans communicate beyond the reach of state security. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison and has reportedly lost more than 100 pounds behind bars.

“When Gross was arrested, Cuban officials gave pretty clear signals of two desires for his release,” Armstrong told Newsweek. “That the programs be made less blatant and insulting to them, and that the Obama administration designate a serious, non-bureaucratic person to discuss this and other matters with them.”

Miami-based political analyst Domingo Amuchastegui isn’t buying the White House’s denial that USAID’s so-called Cuban Twitter program was a covert operation.

“The way in which ZunZuneo was designed, organized, funded and implemented indicate the use of covert methods and techniques, using third countries such as Costa Rica, the Cayman Islands, Spain and even Pakistan; keeping congressional authorities in the dark and withholding information regarding such programs and even violating laws that prohibit the sending of messages without the consent of the recipient,” he said. “Yet hundreds of thousands of messages are being sent to Cuba, not to mention collecting personal data, including polling to gauge the political tendencies of the subscribers.”

Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence agent who defected to the United States in 1994, ripped apart USAID’s description of ZunZuneo as discreet.

“It’s just a matter of facilitating access to harmless, inoffensive, innocuous information about the weather and sports; not at all a covert operation but ‘discreet,’” said the ex-spy, his words dripping with sarcasm. “In the context of WikiLeaks and the Snowden/NSA scandal, such a wording seems like a gross attempt to manipulate a bunch of suckers, meaning the American public — including you and me.”

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