WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
13 Feb 2012 | Commentary | News

Misguided Efforts to Promote Democracy in Cuba

By Geoff Thale

The USAID programs that allegedly promote democracy in Cuba have come under scrutiny once again. Previous critiques of the USAID programs raised concerns about favoritism in awarding contracts and about misuse of the funds in the United States. Now, the Associated Press has published a report that looks at the details of what a USAID subcontractor was actually doing in Cuba. The story raises troubling questions and will make U.S. officials uncomfortable; hopefully, it will lead them to end these counter-productive programs. 
The AP story focuses on the activities of Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was arrested by Cuban authorities in December of 2009 and subsequently sentenced to fifteen years in prison for actions to “undermine the integrity and independence of Cuba.” The United States has insisted that Gross was promoting democracy by helping set up internet access for Cuba’s small Jewish community. The programs described in the AP story sound more like covert activity than democracy promotion, and their purpose seems far more ambiguous. The story, which is based on reports written by Gross to the contractor for whom he worked, reveals that Gross covertly brought high-tech communications equipment into Cuba in five separate trips in 2009. Some of the equipment, such as a military-grade SIM card that allows users to make satellite phone calls that are difficult or impossible to detect, is expressly prohibited in Cuba. When bringing equipment into Cuba, he sometimes removed or obscured identifying labels or asked members of visiting Jewish religious groups to carry equipment parts for him. Gross was clearly aware of how his actions might be seen: he represented himself as a member of a Jewish humanitarian organization, not as a subcontractor for a U.S. government agency. 
Gross was arrested by Cuban authorities more than two years ago and his case has been a source of tension between the United States and Cuba ever since.
Nothing in the story suggests that Alan Gross was engaged in espionage or hurt Cuban state security; he ought to be released on humanitarian grounds. But the story raises troubling questions about what the U.S. government can and should do to promote democracy (and specifically open internet access) abroad, about the line between “promoting democracy” and “promoting regime change,” about what strategies are most effective in advancing democracy, and about whether USAID, as an agency, should be engaging in covert activities that are illegal in the target countries, under the rubric of democracy promotion.
What’s clear in the case of Cuba is that the USAID programs employing Alan Gross and others are ill-conceived. Whatever their intentions, they do nothing to actually promote democracy. Instead, they endanger the U.S. citizens that are sent to Cuba to carry out activities that can easily be interpreted as covert operations. Not only that, by all counts these USAID programs are a waste of U.S. taxpayers’ money. The U.S. government has spent more than $150 million on these programs over the last decade, with little to show for it. 
Most important of all, these programs fail to take into account realities on the ground in Cuba today. Cuba is, in fact, undergoing a series of important changes. There is a real process of political and economic opening taking place. The Cuban government recently allowed private home and auto sales and has begun a modest expansion of the private sector. The government has also released both political and common prisoners in the last year, and a recent Communist Party Conference affirmed the principle of term limits for government and party leaders, which will dramatically alter the political calculus of the next generation of Cuban leaders.   
It is moving slowly, but a process of change is underway in Cuba. Unfortunately, the United States has done almost nothing to recognize or encourage this process. Instead, it continues to put resources into counter-productive efforts that focus on actively promoting “regime change” in Cuba. The programs, quickly detected by Cuban state security, then provide hardliners in Cuba an excuse to slow the pace of reform. (And they taint the good work that USAID is doing elsewhere.)
Policy makers ought to re-think what can and should sensibly be done to promote democratic reform and political opening in Cuba. Reducing the hostility between our countries and increasing contact and dialogue would be the most obvious—and least expensive—steps. If the United States wishes to continue investing in programs directed at Cuba, efforts should focus on educational, cultural, and scientific exchange programs run through the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. These programs should be de-politicized, so that they can actually support the changes that are taking place in Cuba. The few effective current activities—humanitarian support for the families of prisoners, some non-political training programs for journalists, and others—could be carried out under other U.S. government auspices and without the taint that lurks behind the existing programs.
Ending or substantially altering these programs might signal to Cuba that the Obama administration welcomes Cuba’s efforts to open up its economic and political system. And in the context of such a shift, the likelihood that Alan Gross would be pardoned or paroled by Cuban authorities would increase.
Geoff Thale is WOLA’s program director. Mr. Thale has studied Cuba issues since the mid-1990s and traveled to Cuba more than a dozen times, including organizing delegations of academics and Members of Congress.