- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
Foreign governments have long accused the U.S. Agency for International Development of being a front for the CIA or other groups dedicated to their collapse. In the case of Cuba, they appear to have been right.
In an eye-opening display of incompetence, the United States covertly launched a social media platform in Cuba in 2010, hoping to create a Twitter-like service that would spark a "Cuban Spring" and potentially help bring about the collapse of the island’s Communist government.
According to an Associated Press investigation, the project ultimately failed to foment political unrest, but it did turn out to be a useful way for Havana to secretly gather intelligence on the political leanings of the 40,000 Cubans who used it. It was a digital Bay of Pigs, but it was funded by USAID, an arm of the government dedicated to doing good work in bad places, not by the CIA.
Though better known for administering humanitarian aid around the world, USAID has a long history of engaging in intelligence work and meddling in the domestic politics of aid recipients. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the agency often partnered with the CIA’s now-shuttered Office of Public Safety, a department beset by allegations that it trained foreign police in "terror and torture techniques" and encouraged official brutality, according to a 1976 Government Accountability Office report. USAID officials have always denied these accusations but in 1973, Congress directed USAID to phase out its public safety program — which worked with the CIA to train foreign police forces — in large part because the accusations were hurting America’s public image. "It matters little whether the charges can be substantiated," said a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report. "They inevitably stigmatize the total United States foreign aid effort." By the time the program was closed, USAID had helped train thousands of military personnel and police officers in Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and other countries now notorious for their treatment of political dissidents.
Rajiv Shah, the head of USAID, defended the Cuba program Thursday, in an interview with Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC. "Sometimes the work we carry out is carried out discreetly, in the context of keeping the people who are doing this work safe," he said. "It doesn’t make it covert, but it does make it discreet." Meanwhile, agency spokespeople have repeatedly insisted that USAID is "a development agency, not an intelligence agency."
In recent years, USAID’s alleged political meddling has been more subtle. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez frequently and famously accused the United States of covertly trying to overthrow him, but only after his death did evidence emerge to support his seemingly paranoid claims. A WikiLeaks cable released in 2013 outlined the U.S. strategy for undermining Chavez’s government by "penetrating Chavez’s political base," "dividing Chavismo," and "isolating Chavez internationally." The strategy was to be carried out by USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, the same office responsible for developing "Cuban Twitter," and involved funding opposition organizations in Venezuela.
USAID’s previous efforts to potentially weaken Cuban President Raul Castro’s hold on power came to light in 2009, when Cuban authorities arrested USAID contractor Alan Gross and later convicted him for "acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state." Gross had been secretly outfitting the island’s small Jewish community with communications and satellite equipment as part of a program funded by USAID. Castro called Gross a spy, which wasn’t true, but bringing in the equipment broke Cuban laws regulating their citizens’ Internet access. During his 2011 trial, Gross characterized himself as "a trusting fool" who had been manipulated by his employers. "I was duped. I was used. And my family and I have paid dearly for this," he said. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison anyway.
These incidents have fed a narrative, embraced by some foreign governments, that USAID acts as a cover for U.S. intelligence programs. In recent years, an array of countries have accused USAID of interfering in their domestic politics or attempting to undermine their power. In 2013, Bolivian President Evo Morales expelled USAID officials from his country on the grounds that the agency had conspired against his government by allegedly "manipulating" social movements in the country. He also charged that that a previous USAID program that sought to help coca farms switch to new crops was politically motivated.
Russia expelled the agency in 2012 for similar reasons. Its foreign ministry argued in a statement that USAID "attempts to influence political processes through its grants," while President Vladimir Putin blamed U.S.-funded NGOs for inciting protests against his re-election.
And in February, Kenyan Cabinet Secretary Francis Kimemia claimed that his government had evidence that USAID had hired activists to organize anti-government protests in Nairobi, in an effort to "topple" the government.
There is little evidence, at least so far, to verify those charges. But the new Cuba scandal won’t help USAID repair its tattered reputation.