A July 4th Story About Democracy Promotion

A short time back, Digital Diplomacy was all the rage.  Personified by Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, who married social media to democracy promotion at the State Department, the U.S. government made a costly and public commitment to modernizing its tools of diplomacy.

Those were heady days for cyber-democrats, and the U.S. government wasn’t shy about its role in promoting change.  “As American officials and others look back at the uprisings of the Arab Spring, they are seeing that the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.”

Eric Schmidt, then CEO at Google, who brought Cohen and Ross to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View for a Q+A session with dozens of employees, asked them “Is it like calling up all the ambassadors and saying, Please use Facebook, Twitter, and Google?”

It wasn’t that easy.  The ideas behind so-called 21st Century statecraft turned out to be harder to implement than conceive.  Both men have since left the State Department.  Mr. Cohen got a job at Google.  Mr. Ross is writing a book and serving as a corporate consultant.  But, the structure they left behind may not be doing all that well.

If you saw the headline, State Department spent $630G to boost Facebook ‘likes,’ report says, you know what we’re talking about.  In a report recently made public, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors found that the Department spent $630,000 boosting its likes on Facebook, “artificially increasing apparent popularity of the Bureau’s English-language Facebook page from 100,000 likes to 2 million.”

The word “artificially” was well-chosen.  The report also found that the money produced little increase in engagement.  Members of the larger audience weren’t likely to be active politically. The Department didn’t understand how Facebook managed its news feeds, and it was poorly organized to make use of the effort.  The Inspector General found such pervasive problems that the report required over 80 recommendations for fixes.

The report showed a Department more interested in boosting its numbers – to measure just how energetically it was promoting democracy and using social media in nations overseas – than in thinking about or organizing what it was doing.  This had a familiar ring to us.

We mentioned the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) before, when we learned about its contract with Washington Software, Inc. to build up its social media effort in Cuba.  According to documents disgorged by Tracey Eaton, the investigative journalist with whom we are working, “the BBG paid Washington Software $14,474 for” – get this – “361,873 text messages sent to cell phones in Cuba during the month of October 2011” alone.

The numbers sound robust; just like moving up the State Department’s numbers on Facebook.  But, the Cuba programs are shrouded in secrecy, and U.S. taxpayers have no idea what the SMS messages said, to whom they were sent, or what the purposes of the messages were.

Apparently, we must simply trust Carlos García-Pérez, the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, who is certain these efforts are successful.  “With these new initiatives we are enhancing the way that people in Cuba can share information,” he said in comments reported by the Miami Herald.

We’re not so sure.  Earlier this spring, Mr. Eaton reported that the BBG has spent more than half-a-million dollars since 2005 to buy TV and Radio Martí the rights to broadcast Major League Baseball games for the Cuban audience, even though the stations are jammed by Cuba’s government.

Last Sunday, the Associated Press reported that Cuba broadcast a major league game on state television.  It was stripped of commercial advertising, neither of the teams involved fielded any Cuban players, and the game was two-months old.  Not surprisingly, Cubans who watched didn’t think much of it.

If the Martís are broadcasting the real thing live, why did Cuba need to run a May 2nd game on June 30th?  Because no one in Cuba hears them.  So why was the BBG bragging on July 2nd about its contract with Major League Baseball?  Because it doesn’t think that anyone here knows any better, and they are right.

As events unfolded in Egypt this week, we were reminded that democracy promotion is a tricky, unpredictable thing.  It’s inherently intrusive, as one scholar of the subject wrote recently, and causes pushback in the countries where we’re accused of meddling.

In Cuba, where these activities are illegal, they endanger the citizens who come in contact with them and put the personnel who carry them out at great risk.  In the U.S., because they are carried out in secret, most U.S. taxpayers are completely in the dark about what their government is doing, which hardly seems democratic at all.


Increase in visas issued to Cubans for travel to U.S.

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana (USINT) has announced that the number of visas it has issued to Cubans wishing to visit the United States  in recent months has actually increased, reports the Miami Herald. The announcement by the USINT was made following allegations – first published in the blog La Pupila Insomne and reposted in Granma – that officials there had accepted bribes in exchange for issuing visas to Cubans wishing to travel or immigrate to the U.S. and had begun issuing fewer visas.

In an official statement, the USINT reported a 79% increase in visitors visas issued to Cubans during the first half of 2013 compared to the same period last year. According to the Miami Herald, these figures can be attributed to Cuba’s decision to eliminate the exit permit, a restriction imposed on the right of Cuba’s citizens to travel, as well as to an increased number of daily visa interviews conducted by the U.S. consulate in Havana, from 150 to 600 each day in order to relieve a backlog of visa applications.

With the loosening of travel restrictions, the biggest barrier for most Cubans to travel to the U.S. is gaining the permission required from U.S. authorities.

In a related feature, the Associated Press tells the story of Miriam Milian, who traveled from Cuba to Virginia to watch her son, whom she had not seen in 10 years, graduate from the Virginia State Police Academy. Marcos Hernández, Milian’s son, came to the U.S. with his father during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Hernández says he wrote a letter to the U.S. State Department explaining the situation, and “it made a big difference that I was graduating from the police academy because they approved her to come here.”

U.S. fines Italian bank

Intesa SanPaolo S.p.A, Italy’s second largest bank, will pay a $3 million fine to the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for “apparent violations” of U.S. restrictions on trade, reports Cuba Standard. The bank made 53 wire transfers amounting to more than $1.6 million to Cuba between 2004 and 2008. Foreign banks have dropped service to Cuba as a result of a persistent crackdown by the Obama administration on transactions involving U.S. dollars. The intense oversight is a result, in part, of increased U.S. sanctions aimed at Iran, according to Cuba Standard. OFAC enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy goals.

Pastors for Peace’s 24th Friendshipment Caravan heads to Cuba

North American members of Pastors for Peace have again mounted buses and set off on a two-week road trip that will wind through dozens of cities in the U.S. and Mexico.  Along the way, they will collect humanitarian aid that will be shipped from the Yucatan to Cuba while the caravanistas make their last leg of the journey to the island by plane, reports Radio Cadena Agramonte. They will then spend two weeks in Cuba for educational and faith-based activities. In acts of civil disobedience, the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO)-Pastors for Peace has been traveling to Cuba without requesting a license from the U.S. government since 1992.


Ricardo Alarcón leaves leadership

During the 7th Plenary of the Central Committee of Cuba’s Communist Party, 11 new members were named to the 100+ member central committee, while other members whose positions in the government ended previously stepped down, reports Granma, the party’s official publication. Notable among those leaving is Ricardo Alarcón, who recently left his post as the head of Cuba’s National Assembly after two decades.

Alarcón has been a high-level official since 1962 when he was appointed director of the U.S. division of Cuba’s foreign ministry. Four years later, he moved to New York, where he served as Cuba’s ambassador to the UN until 1978. Back in Cuba, Alarcon then spent 14 years as the country’s foreign minister before moving on to parliament.

For many years, Alarcón was the Cuban official who met with U.S. delegations of all kinds, because of his influence and experience, his knowledge of the U.S., and his ease with English. For many years, he has been Cuba’s lead advocate for the release of the Cuban Five, and has written a column at CubaDebate.  It is unclear if he will continue with these projects.

Guillermo Fariñas collects his Sakharov Prize as Ladies in White face internal struggles

Guillermo Fariñas formally received his Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament three years after it was awarded to him in 2010, reports RTT. The Vice-President of the European parliament praised Fariñas’ tactic of civil disobedience, saying, “You have chosen, on several occasions, the hunger-strike as a weapon to fight against dictatorship in your country. You put your health at risk, but – fearlessly – you did it again and again.” Fariñas was grateful and further expressed his desire for “the basic foundation of life and human coexistence, which is freedom.”

In April, Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White opposition group, received the same prize, which had been awarded to the group in 2005. Both Soler and Fariñas were finally able to collect their awards after Cuba’s leadership removed most regulatory obstacles for Cubans to travel abroad.

Meanwhile, Soler declined to comment about a scandal that has erupted within the Ladies in White, which resulted in 19 members leaving the group last week, reports Marti Noticias. The dissenters’ main complaint is with Belkis Cantillo, the group’s regional leader in Santiago de Cuba. One former member stated, “Belkis does not want to submit to a vote and does not allow us to express our opinions, this is not democratic.”

New non-agricultural cooperatives operational

124 new non-agricultural cooperatives are now operational in Cuba, reports Reuters. The cooperatives span various sectors of the economy including construction, produce markets, transportation, and garbage collection. According to Granma, 112 are non-state sector cooperatives, while 12 operate within the state sector.

As per regulations regarding cooperatives published in December, the non-state sector cooperatives set prices for their products when prices are not already set by the state; and they will be run democratically, independently distribute profit among members, and receive more favorable tax treatment than businesses owned by individuals, Reuters reports. Under the same law, such cooperatives may have an unlimited number of members and can contract employees for three months at a time.

Starting in 2014, Cuba’s government has announced that additional cooperatives functioning independently of the state entities and businesses will be created. The first wholesale produce market run by a non-state sector cooperative opened Monday; as Reuters reported last month, similar markets will open in the coming months in Havana and the Artemisa and Mayabeque provinces. Current estimates by Cuba’s government indicate that over 430,000 people work in Cuba’s non-state sector, a figure excluding approximately 2,000 agricultural cooperatives and 400,000 small farmers.

Private business makes blocks for sturdy, weather proof homes

As a function of the new economic reforms and goals put forth by Cuba’s government, Arcides Pérez has begun to fabricate cement blocks to help improve the stability of homes around his town in central Cuba, reports IPS. “We sell blocks at five pesos (25 cents in U.S. dollars) apiece, the same as the state,” said Pérez. “Securing the materials is problematic because there are shortages in the stores. For the last three months, I have only been repairing and building tanks, as well as transporting and installing them, because of the lack of cement,” he said, explaining his most difficult challenges.

The struggling economy combined with frequent hurricanes has made a significant impact on the structural stability of homes in Cuba. As a priority within the new economic reforms, Cuba’s government hopes to transfer 70% of all block construction to privately-owned businesses. According to Rodobaldo Ibarne, another small business owner, “The state stores cannot keep up with demand.”


Santos rejects FARC proposal to hold constituent assembly

Upon resumption of peace talks in Havana this week between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos denied one of the 10 proposals put forth as requirements by the FARC, reports Colombia Reports.

In an interview with state radio, Santos stated his case against the creation of a constituent assembly: “Imagine a constituent [assembly] that nullifies everything that has been done.” If such an assembly was held, both groups would have to start from scratch at the negotiation table. Santos fears that this may set back progress that has already been made and paralyze the ability of the parties to reach an agreement. Meanwhile, the FARC is encouraging a smaller guerrilla group, the ELN, to enter into peace talks with the government, reports the Miami Herald. During a press conference in Havana, FARC negotiators said, “We will do everything we can so that talks between our sister organization and the government begin.” The FARC, Colombia’s largest guerrilla organization, has been at war against the state for 50 years.

Around the Region

Venezuela receives Snowden extradition request from U.S.; re-routing of Evo Morales flight provokes outcry from region’s leaders

Venezuela responded to the pre-emptive extradition request from the United States for Edward Snowden by reiterating one of its own, reports Europa Press. “The first thing that they (the government of the United States) needs to do in order to have moral ground to ask for the extradition of Snowden, whose only crime was revealing the crimes that they commit, is send us Luis Posada Carriles, whom they have protected,” said Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro.  “Why don’t they send us the confessed assassin, terrorist, and convict Luis Posada Carriles, who has been granted political asylum by the North American government and lives in Florida.” Posada Carriles escaped a Venezuelan prison while awaiting trial for his alleged role in the mid-air bombing of a Cuban civilian aircraft in 1976, which killed all 73 aboard.

This exchange marks the most recent in a string of developments further complicating U.S.-Latin America relations in the case of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. On Tuesday night, the plane of Bolivia’s President Evo Morales was forced to land in Vienna, Austria after requests to enter the airspace of Portugal and France were rejected based on suspicions that Morales was harboring Snowden, reports Reuters.  Snowden was not aboard and the president continued home to Bolivia.

The incident, however, led to a meeting of nine South American leaders in Cochabamba, Bolivia, who signed a declaration that called the grounding of Morales’ flight a “dangerous precedent for international rights” and warned that a formal complaint will be filed with the United Nations, reports DPA. For his part, José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the Organization of American States expressed his “deep displeasure” with the conduct of the European countries involved in the situation, EFE reports. Further, Morales threatened to shut down the U.S. embassy in La Paz, saying “We met with the leaders of my party and they asked us for several measures and if necessary, we will close the embassy of the United States … We do not need the embassy of the United States.”

Recommended Reading

The U.S. should end the Cuban embargo, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Washington Post

Returning from a trip to Cuba, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation argues that U.S. policy toward Cuba is outdated and ineffective. She writes, U.S. policy does not acknowledge changes occurring in Cuba, including the economic reforms currently underway.

Recommended Viewing

Fidel Castro in South Africa with Nelson Mandela, excerpt from the film “Fidel” by Estela Bravo

Beginning with a short overview of Cuba’s role in several struggles in Africa and followed by snippets from former President Fidel Castro’s tour of the continent, this clip culminates with the first face-to-face meeting between Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro and the latter’s appearance at the South African Parliament in 1998.

Cuba’s amazing dancing identical triplets, aged 13, BBC

Sarah Rainsford of the BBC reports on 13-year-old identical triplets Marcos, Angel, and Cesar, each of whom aspires to a career in professional ballet. The talented triplets are well on their way, studying at a prestigious school that often graduates dancers into Cuba’s National Ballet.

Recommended Listening

Caucho Valdés and the Afro-Cuban Messengers ‘Border-Free’, Felix Contreras, NPR First Listen

Combining Afro-Cuban and New Orleans style jazz, Valdés’ new album “Border-Free” demonstrates the unity that music can bring. “Border-Free” features an 11-minute track in tribute to the Comanche people who were sent to eastern Cuba in the 19th Century.

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