Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    In Cuba, Misadventures in Regime Change

    In Cuba, Misadventures in Regime Change

    In 1996, spurred by an appetite for revenge, American lawmakers passed a
    bill spelling out a strategy to overthrow the government in Havana and
    “assist the Cuban people in regaining their freedom.” The Helms-Burton
    Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton shortly after Cuba shot
    down two small civilian American planes, has served as the foundation
    for the $264 million the United States has spent in the last 18 years
    trying to instigate democratic reforms on the island.

    Far from accomplishing that goal, the initiatives have been largely
    counterproductive. The funds have been a magnet for charlatans,
    swindlers and good intentions gone awry. The stealthy programs have
    increased hostility between the two nations, provided Cuba with a trove
    of propaganda fodder and stymied opportunities to cooperate in areas of
    mutual interest.

    The United States should strive to promote greater freedoms on the
    island of 11 million people and loosen the grip of one of the most
    repressive governments in the world. But it must chart a new approach
    informed by the lessons of nearly two decades of failed efforts to
    destabilize the Castro regime.

    During the final years of the Clinton administration, the United States
    spent relatively little on programs in Cuba under Helms-Burton. That
    changed when George W. Bush came to power in 2001 with an ambitious aim
    to bring freedom to oppressed people around the world. The United States
    Agency for International Development, better known for its humanitarian
    work than cloak-and-dagger missions, became the primary vehicle for
    pro-democracy work in Cuba, where it is illegal.

    In the early years of the Bush administration, spending on initiatives
    to oust the government surged from a few million a year to more than $20
    million in 2004. Most contracts were awarded, without much oversight, to
    newly formed Cuban-American groups. One used funds on a legally
    questionable global lobbying effort to persuade foreign governments to
    support America’s unpopular embargo. Other grantees sent loads of comic
    books to the American diplomatic mission in Havana, bewildering
    officials there. The money was also used to buy food and clothes, but
    there was no way to track how much reached relatives of political
    prisoners, the intended recipients.

    According to a November 2006 report by the Government Accountability
    Office, one contractor used the pro-democracy money to buy “a gas chain
    saw, computer gaming equipment and software (including Nintendo Game
    Boys and Sony PlayStations), a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere
    sweaters, crab meat and Godiva chocolates,” purchases he was unable to
    justify to auditors.

    Adolfo Franco, then head of the aid agency’s Latin America office,
    defended the programs in a speech in April 2007 at the University of
    Miami, claiming they were contributing to the steady growth of Cuba’s
    political opposition. He argued that the agency needed to keep taking
    “calculated risks,” even though many in Congress were skeptical that the
    efforts were fruitful. “Ending this regime is a solemn duty,” said Mr.
    Franco, a Cuban-American.

    The G.A.O. probe led the aid agency to start awarding more funds to
    established development organizations, including some that pitched bold
    initiatives. In 2008, Congress appropriated $45 million for the
    programs, a record amount. One major undertaking that started during the
    Bush years to expand Internet access in Cuba had disastrous
    repercussions for the Obama administration.

    In September 2009, the State Department sent a relatively senior
    official to Havana in an attempt to restore mail service and to
    cooperate on migration policy, marking the highest level contact in
    years. That December, Cuban authorities arrested an American
    subcontractor who traveled to the island five times on U.S.A.I.D.
    business, posing as a tourist to smuggle communication equipment.

    At the time, many senior State Department officials were not fully aware
    of the scope and nature of the covert programs, but the Cubans, incensed
    at what they saw as a disingenuous two-track policy, took a hard line
    with the American prisoner, Alan Gross, sentencing him to 15 years in
    prison. Senior officials at U.S.A.I.D. and the State Department were
    startled by the risks being taken, and some argued that the covert
    programs were counterproductive and should be stopped. But
    Cuban-American lawmakers fought vigorously to keep them alive.

    After Mr. Gross’s arrest, the aid agency stopped sending American
    contractors into Cuba, but it allowed its contractors to recruit Latin
    Americans for secret missions that were sometimes detected by the Cuban
    intelligence services. An investigation by The Associated Press
    published in April revealed a controversial program carried out during
    the Obama administration. Between 2009 and 2012, Creative Associates
    International, a Washington firm, built a rudimentary text messaging
    system similar to Twitter, known as ZunZuneo, Cuban slang for a
    hummingbird’s tweet. It was supposed to provide Cubans with a platform
    to share messages with a mass audience, and ultimately be used to
    assemble “smart mobs.”

    The program was scrapped in 2012. Contractors had been paying tens of
    thousands of dollars in text-messaging fees to the Cuban
    telecommunications company and never found a way to make the platform
    self-sustaining. A second A.P. report revealed in August that U.S.A.I.D.
    had been sending young Latin Americans to Cuba to identify “potential
    social change actors,” under the pretext of organizing gatherings like
    an H.I.V. prevention workshop. The contractors, also hired by Creative
    Associates, received quick pointers on how to evade Cuban intelligence
    and were paid as little as $5.41 an hour for work that could have easily
    landed them in prison.

    The American money has provided food and comfort to some relatives of
    political prisoners, and been used to build limited access to
    satellite-based Internet connections. But it has done more to stigmatize
    than to help dissidents. Instead of stealth efforts to overthrow the
    government, American policy makers should find ways to empower ordinary
    Cubans by expanding study-abroad programs, professional exchanges and
    investment in the new small businesses cropping up around the island.
    They should continue to promote Internet connectivity, but realize that
    accomplishing that goal on a large scale will require coordination with
    the Cuban government.

    Perhaps most important, Washington should recognize that the most it can
    hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a
    more open society. That is more likely to come about through stronger
    diplomatic relations than subterfuge.

    Source: In Cuba, Misadventures in Regime Change – –