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    ‘Cuban Twitter’ raises question: Is it OK for U.S. to help Cubans?

    Posted on Thursday, 04.03.14

    ‘Cuban Twitter’ raises question: Is it OK for U.S. to help Cubans?
    The USAID programs are branded as subversive by critics, and by others
    as support for democracy

    Does the U.S. government have the right to circumvent a dictatorship’s
    controls on information? And if Washington tries to help foster
    democracy in a country ruled by a dictator, is it pushing for “regime

    Those are the fundamental questions raised by an Associated Press report
    Thursday that the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID,
    financed a “covert” Twitter-like system for Cubans “designed to
    undermine the communist government.”

    Replies predictably ranged from a rotund no to a flat yes, largely
    reflecting the divisions over U.S. policies on Cuba and the more than
    half-century of animosity between the two nations.

    White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the AP was wrong in branding
    USAID’s “Zunzuneo” program as covert. In “non-permissive environments”
    it is “discreet” to “protect the practitioners and the public,” he said.
    “This is not unique to Cuba.”

    State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf took aim at what she called the
    “misconceptions” in the “breathlessly written” AP report and said, “The
    notion that we were somehow trying to foment unrest … nothing could be
    further from the truth.”

    But Max Lesnik, a Miami radio commentator who supports the government of
    ruler Raúl Castro, called Zunzuneo “an operation aimed at changing the
    Cuban government — regime change. This is a covert aggression through
    social networks.”

    Cuba’s government has outlawed the USAID programs as subversive and
    calls all dissidents “U.S. mercenaries.” The agency says its programs
    promote democracy and support civil society, and notes that Congress
    approved $20 million for them this year alone.

    USAID subcontractor Alan Gross is serving a 15-year sentence in Havana
    for giving Cuban Jews sophisticated communications equipment that would
    have allowed them to sidestep government controls on the Internet and
    telephone connections.

    Ninoska Perez Castellon, a Miami radio commentator and Castro critic,
    said the USAID programs are needed. “Cuba is a dictatorship, and any
    program that helps a country where there is repression and censorship is
    justified,” she said.

    She added that Cuba’s complaints that Washington is promoting subversion
    on the island are “total hypocrisy” because the Castro government
    trained and armed leftist guerrillas from throughout Latin America in
    the 1970s and ’80s.

    But Washington should be careful in how it supports civil society in
    repressive countries, said Emily Parker, author of a book on Internet
    controls in Cuba, China and Russia and advisor on digital diplomacy to
    former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

    “The U.S. needs to tread very carefully in countries like Cuba because
    to directly support [dissidents] makes it easy to call them
    mercenaries,” Parker said. “That sometimes does more harm than good.”

    There are other ways for Washington to support the Internet in Cuba, she
    said, such as eliminating U.S. obstacles to access that are sometimes
    created by the trade embargo. Her book, Now I Know Who My Comrades Are,
    was published early this year.

    Cuba democracy advocate Mauricio Claver-Carone, meanwhile, said it was
    no surprise for the U.S. media and some politicians to complain about
    U.S. policies in Cuba but praise the same policies when they are applied
    to other countries.

    A global outcry followed Turkey’s ongoing attempts to cut off Twitter
    amid the ongoing anti-government protests, he said, and USAID runs
    similar programs to expand the flow of information in dictatorships such
    as Syria, North Korea and Iran.

    “That’s not controversial. Everybody supports that. But it seems Cuba is
    the only place where we have to accept a totalitarian government’s
    control over communications,” said Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.
    Cuba Democracy political action committee.

    Cuba’s communist government controls all newspapers, radio and TV
    stations, makes access to the Internet very expensive and and blocks
    access to many web pages and the transmissions of the U.S. government’s
    Radio/TV Marti stations.

    “The story that needs to be told is the lack of access to the Internet
    and Twitter in Cuba,” said Marc Wachtenheim, a Washington consultant who
    has been involved with the Cuba programs. “All efforts to overcome that
    information blockade are valid and moral.”

    Cuba blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo said his complaint about the
    Zunzuneo program was that it was so ineffective in reaching Cubans —
    40,000 in a nation of 11 million — that he only heard about it from a
    government supporter a few years back.

    But he supports the goal of promoting democracy on the island.

    “The U.S. government, and many democratic governments, have a moral debt
    with countries ruled by dictatorships,” he said. “They talk about a debt
    with slavery, a debt with colonies, but not a debt with despotic countries.”

    Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said USAID’s Cuba programs are not
    secret but have to keep a low profile to protect people in Cuba from
    government retaliation.

    While bags of U.S. food sent to Haiti carry a U.S. stamp, Ros-Lehtinen
    said, a U.S. government program that sends books to independent
    libraries in Cuba does not put U.S. stamps on the books.

    What’s more, the objective is not to change the Cuban government, she
    added in an interview with El Nuevo Herald, “but to provide information
    to an oppressed people.”

    “And we will keep doing these programs,” she vowed. “We are trying every
    which way to penetrate Cuba’s hold on information, to foster a hunger
    for democracy. But in no way are we calling for regime change.”

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