Are USAID’s Dirty Tricks Over in Cuba?

Fernando Ravsberg*

USAID Chief Rajiv Shah

HAVANA TIMES — “It was with mixed emotions that I informed President Barack Obama and Secretary Kerry that I will step down as Administrator in mid-February 2015,” USAID Chief Rajiv Shah announced, realizing that his country’s politics is now heading in a different direction than his agency is.

It was the least Mr. Shah could do after President Obama announced a policy that is diametrically opposed to what the agency he directed had been implementing for years. Not many people are going to miss him: he disappointed some with his lack of ethics and others with his downright clumsiness.

USAID operations in Cuba were like spoiled apples that made everything around them rot. They turned the opposition into “mercenaries” on the empire’s payroll and government critics into the “naïve” who fell into enemy traps, giving credence to those who maintained that opening up to the world weakened the nation.

This was so evident that two US senators, Patrick Leahy and Jeff Flake, called the tactics employed by the US Agency for International Development aimed at destabilizing the Cuban government “irresponsible and stupid.”

Full Internet access has been a topic of debate in Cuba for quite some time. While some believe it must be a right granted all citizens, a minority alert us to how the “enemy” can use the Internet to undermine people’s consciences.

USAID’s clumsy maneuvers set in motion those grinders which would limit and control Internet access. Plans to set up networks that would bring about the collapse of the government became the chief argument wielded by the fringe group that opposes such contact with the outside world.

USAID did nothing because of a love for art

As though smelling a clearance sale, the US agency also set out to buy the souls of Cuban musicians, without first finding out whether they were on sale or not. They played even dirtier than the devil, who at least always gives people the option of saying “no.”

The duo Alto Voltage, Alexander Perez and Norlan Leygonier

USAID officials created complicated mechanisms to hide the strings that moved their puppets. Confident they would never be unmasked, they hired a US company that employs Serbian promoters to set up a ghost company in Panama.

For a simple agency devoted to development, USAID uses a fair number of mechanisms similar to those of the intelligence services. Its European counterparts, for instance, do not work in a clandestine fashion and always secure the permission of the governments that benefit from their aid.

USAID never asked for anyone’s permission to “help”, not even those who would ultimately receive their funds. This way, they financed hundreds of Cuban musicians without them knowing they were part of a covert operation, or that the money was coming from the United States.

The most noteworthy case was that of the Cuban rap band Los Aldeanos, whose innocence was ratified by Cuba’s Vice-Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas. Rojas regarded the duo as a “victim” of the United States’ covert operations, stressing that the singers should be less “naïve” in the future.

Ironically, Los Aldeanos didn’t need to be “bought” in order to be critical of the government. For years, they questioned Cuban reality without mincing their words, something which made their message heard among certain sectors of Cuba’s youth.

What USAID did was contaminate them with their money. Even though they didn’t know where it was coming from, that shadow will invariably cause people to doubt their integrity and the honesty of their criticisms, reducing the impact of their messages.

Cuba detained Alan Gross while on a secret USAID operation, later allowing Cuba to make a trade for the three Cuban agents imprisoned in the United States.

Acknowledging the work of USAID

The most conservative of Cuban politicians should thank USAID for confirming that they pay dissidents millions of dollars, prompting doubts about the intentions of the more critical artists and for ruining the case of those who demand greater access to the Internet.

They should also recognize how kind the agency was to send US citizen Alan Gross to smuggle communications equipment into the island. Thanks to that, the country was able to trade prisoners, benefiting three Cuban agents who were serving sentences in the United States.

President Barack Obama acknowledged these strategies had failed and he wasn’t wrong. USAID officials had become “sorcerer apprentices” whose spells only served to turn everyone they touched into frogs.
(*) Visit the website of Fernando Ravsberg.

9 thoughts on “Are USAID’s Dirty Tricks Over in Cuba?

  • There is a saying “birds of a feather flock together”. Cuba proudly proclaims its solidarity with North Korea. Does that not imply ideological simpatico? Yes, like millions of other people who long to see a free Cuba, I was caught completely off-guard by President Obama. I admit I was wrong about the political calculus. Actually, John, I now see his decision as genius. He sent the three spies home and has promised to open an Embassy. Even relaxing the travel restrictions is small potatoes to most Americans. Yet, on the international stage, he is seen as heroic. Politically, not a bad move. Cuba is still poor and in need of handouts. By the way, hamburgers were just as good before Ray Kroc founded McDonald’s, so what?

  • Imaginative, but ultimately your rhetoric doesn’t work. I have an NGO friend who has worked in both North Korea and Cuba. From his experience and media reports, I think they bear little resemblance to each other in practice or political theory.

    I readily confess to have believed that President Obama would move faster than he did, but ultimately he is arriving where I advocated and predicted.

    You insisted on many occasions that he would not take the actions I called for. Stop playing verbal games and acknowledge that you were wrong.

    Neither side at this point will give up their statements of unbending faith to their core values but normalization provides the possibility to reach a practical accommodation over time.

    Coffee in Old Havana is already as good as Starbucks and considerably less expensive.

    Are you ever going to come out from behind your persona and sit down with me in NY or Washington?

  • Hahaha! You have been predicting that Obama would do something every year since 2008. Even a broken watch is right twice a day. USAID funding was cut but the Agency is far from dead. When you publicly (and privately) criticize North Korea’s leadership, you risk imprisonment or worse. Just last week a Cuban artist was arrested for attempting to release two pigs into the street with the words FIDEL and RAUL painted on their sides. The US comedy the “Interview” has been criticized by North Korea because it makes fun of North Korean leadership. There is a post on HT right now about the banning of a movie in Cuba that casts a negative view of the Castro leadership. For 60 years, North Korea has been ruled by one family. For 56 years Cuba has been ruled by one family. Both countries maintain strong ties including the failed weapons deal that resulted in UN censure. So yes John, ideological twins. Obama made it very clear that his intentions to continue to try to bring democracy to Cuba are firm. Reread his announcement speech.He also acknowledged that regime change is not the best strategy. A lesson learned in Libya and Iraq. But like most pro-Castro supporters, take your victory lap now John. When you are buying me a Café Americano at a Starbucks in Old Havana after free and independent elections in Cuba, I will take my lap too.

  • Moses,

    Ideological twin?

    About as accurate as your assurances Obama would not do anything significant with Cuba.

    Congress cut off USAID Cuba funding this year.

    Regime change is implicitly off the table when you have normal relations between countries. Economic warfare becomes increasingly hard to justify.

  • Cuba, like their ideological twin North Korea, has no desire to foster democratic practices within its borders. Urging the US to seek the Castros approval to engage pro-democracy programs in Cuba is a waste of time. Just as Cuba promotes its pro-Castro agenda through mouthpieces such as the editorial writer at the NYT, the US must simply be more discreet in our efforts to assist the pro-democracy movement in Cuba. By the way, USAID has not renounced its regime change policies for Cuba. The only change is that they have pledged to stop being so ham-handed in implementing this policy.

  • USAID may have ended its cockamamie schemes, but the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor expects to award up to $11 million in grants, ranging from $500,000 to $2 million each aimed at boosting civil, political and labor rights in Cuba.

    Additional US monies will flow to dissidents through the quasi-governmental National Endowment for Democracy.

    If the US wants to foster understanding of rule and law, private enterprise, and democratic practices, directly or through NGOs, it must follow normal diplomatic protocol, as do the Canadians and Europeans, by obtaining authorization from the host government. US practice in Vietnam is worth study by both Havana and Washington.

    John McAuliff
    Fund for Reconciliation and Development

  • Exactly!

  • One man’s “noble intentions” is another man’s meddling in the political affairs of a peaceful sovereign nation. Hoping that the new leadership at USAID stay the course in Cuba but with more finesse and forethought… that’s just another way of saying… you hope they don’t get caught sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong.

  • However noble the intentions of USAID’s efforts in Cuba, their tactics were clumsy and juvenile. One man’s “dirty tricks” are another’s “freedom strategy”. I hope the new leadership at USAID stay the course in Cuba but with more finesse and forethought. The Castros certainly are going to change their agenda, so why should we?

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