Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

There’s Nothing Sinister or Unique about USAID’s Cuba Program

Critics of U.S. policy towards Cuba are in high dudgeon over an Associated Press "blockbuster" story on an attempt by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to fund the start-up of a rudimentary Twitter network in Cuba. We are being led to believe that somehow the United States got "caught" in some sort of rogue "covert action" ...

ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images

Critics of U.S. policy towards Cuba are in high dudgeon over an Associated Press "blockbuster" story on an attempt by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to fund the start-up of a rudimentary Twitter network in Cuba. We are being led to believe that somehow the United States got "caught" in some sort of rogue "covert action" in Cuba, bringing us back to the "bad old days" of poisoned cigars and exploding shellfish targeting Fidel Castro.

Long-time embargo opponent Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), for example, went before the cameras to ask the U.S. government, "What in heaven's name are you thinking?"

I'll tell you what they were thinking, as I was intimately involved in USAID's Cuba Democracy Program in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration. Back then, Congress had just tripled the program's funding and our task was to leverage the social media revolution to break down the Castro regime's wall of censorship placed between ordinary Cubans and the outside world, and between Cubans themselves. Our goal was to help create pockets of freedom for the Cuban people, in which their every thought and word would not be monitored by the Castro regime.

Critics of U.S. policy towards Cuba are in high dudgeon over an Associated Press "blockbuster" story on an attempt by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to fund the start-up of a rudimentary Twitter network in Cuba. We are being led to believe that somehow the United States got "caught" in some sort of rogue "covert action" in Cuba, bringing us back to the "bad old days" of poisoned cigars and exploding shellfish targeting Fidel Castro.

Long-time embargo opponent Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), for example, went before the cameras to ask the U.S. government, "What in heaven’s name are you thinking?"

I’ll tell you what they were thinking, as I was intimately involved in USAID’s Cuba Democracy Program in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration. Back then, Congress had just tripled the program’s funding and our task was to leverage the social media revolution to break down the Castro regime’s wall of censorship placed between ordinary Cubans and the outside world, and between Cubans themselves. Our goal was to help create pockets of freedom for the Cuban people, in which their every thought and word would not be monitored by the Castro regime.

We knew that if there is one thing that dictatorial regimes feared more than freedom of expression, it was freedom of assembly. That is why the Castro regime keeps Cuba’s dissident community atomized. We wanted to take advantage of modern communications technology denied to Cubans to put them in touch with one another sans government censorship. If they wanted to discuss politics or weather it made no difference; the goal was to facilitate communication amongst them. (Although the Cuba Democracy Program was subsequently downgraded and revamped by the Obama administration, the technology focus of the Bush administration remained for some time.)

Of course, there was risk. Everyone understood the challenges and dangers of implementing such programs in a police state. But at the same time, everyone involved knew it was the right thing to do if the United States stood for anything at all in the world. (The later arrest of Alan Gross involved a mistake that should not have happened.) That the programs were implemented discreetly was precisely to protect peoples’ lives. The Castro regime has been abusing the Cuban people for five decades; no one was about to advocate advertising the details of what we were trying to accomplish on the island.

In any case, critics of U.S. policy towards Cuba have consistently mischaracterized the Cuba Democracy Program as something sinister or unprecedented. In fact, there is nothing sinister or unique about the program, which is administered by both the State Department and USAID. It is what is known within the bureaucracy as a "cross-border program" into a non-presence country — meaning we are trying to help support people living in repressive states in which we have no local development office. There are, or have been, at least six other countries in which the U.S. government runs similar cross-border programs.

Frankly, the only thing unique about the program is the level of scrutiny and criticism to which it has been subjected. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) has argued as much. "They’re trying to say that somehow it’s a bad idea to help people where Twitter and Facebook are illegal because the governments are so repressive. That’s bad?" he told USA Today. "I’m hoping we’re doing that everywhere. I’m hoping we’re doing that in North Korea, in Iran."

Indeed, singling out one program over any of the others betrays a political motivation that undercuts the critics’ arguments — that their opposition is based more on the fact that it is viewed as an impediment to U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, because the Castro regime vehemently opposes it.

The United States has made a commitment to the Cuban people through its democracy support. And the fact that the biggest challenge to the program, other than the difficult environment, is that Cubans continue to request more and more material support to expand their independence is the best testimony to keeping the program alive.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.