Only Steve Martin, who jumped about with an arrow through his head, could find a practical upside to the use news of Russian cyber-espionage aimed at disrupting the U.S. presidential election.
If the Russians can find my old iTunes playlist, that would be so great (Twitter).
But, written on the furrowed brows of the U.S. national security establishment, reacting to Russian hackers penetrating the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) computer system and dumping 30,000 of its emails on the eve of the party’s convention, are the words THIS IS NO JOKE in all caps.
We think it’s serious, too. But, with the alarm bells ringing in reaction to what Russian state actors did, we also want to consider its implications for U.S. regime change policies toward Cuba.
The Russian election hack is not just another flame bursting from the out-of-control dumpster fire that is the 2016 presidential election. While experts concede that the “Great powers in particular, including the United States, often meddle in foreign elections,” the Russian hack appears to have crossed a line into a dangerous, more provocative realm.
Eliot A. Cohen, a former counselor in George W. Bush’s State Department, told the Washington Post, “Foreign governments sometimes express preferences about who should be elected; that’s already problematic,” he said. “But to do something in the nature of dirty tricks would be a very, very serious problem.”
Amanda Taub, writing in the New York Times, said the use of such tactics had the potential to make “the international arena more volatile. It is difficult to determine responsibility, which creates a risk that states will punish the wrong culprit — or respond too harshly, forcing an unintended cycle of escalation.”
Under a new Obama administration policy, as the New York Times reported this week, the attack on the DNC would qualify as a “significant cyber incident,” and merit a response that causes “diplomatic, financial and legal pain.”
The righteously indignant reaction by U.S. experts to the Russian election hack makes us ask if now is the right time for a reconsideration of the “regime change” efforts to undermine Cuba’s government still in use today.
Before we reply to the utterly predictable, misplaced groans about “moral equivalency,” consider the facts.
Since 1996, the U.S. government has spent over a billion dollars in programs aimed at overthrowing the Cuban system. As Tracey Eaton reported last year, activities funded by the State Department, USAID, and the National Endowment for Democracy account for over $324 million, to which he adds another $700 million in spending for Radio and TV Martí – the broadcast outlets few Cubans ever watch or hear.
These funds are authorized under Section 109 of the Helms-Burton Act. It authorizes the U.S. government to “provide assistance and support to individuals and independent non‑governmental organizations in their efforts towards democratization of Cuba.” Fulton Armstrong, an expert in Latin American Affairs, has called this “a euphemism that serves as a basis for legalizing U.S. interference in the internal affairs of Cuba in open violation of international law.”
The interference, as many of our readers know, has come in the following forms:
- Smuggling sophisticated communications equipment into Cuba to establish secret networks for use by government opponents to communicate and organize in violation of Cuban law. Alan Gross spent five years in a Cuban prison for committing such an offense.
- Creating the ZunZuneo social media network, exposed by the AP, to “introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize ‘smart mobs’ — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice that might trigger a Cuban spring, or, as one USAID document put it, ‘renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.’”
- Smearing Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Cuba’s former Archbishop, whose efforts to free political prisoners by talking to Cuba’s leaders were criticized in an editorial by Radio/TV Martí as “collusion.” He was called a “lackey” of the regime by the senior Obama administration official who wrote it.
- Recruiting Latin American youth “in hopes of ginning up rebellion” in Cuba, as the Washington Post reported, by infiltrating them into Cuba, recruiting Cubans under the guise of bringing them to an HIV-prevention workshop, but never informing them that the U.S. government was financing the cost of trying to convert them into government opponents, which put them in great danger.
When Tracey Eaton compiled the data on U.S. government spending for Helms-Burton funded activities like these, supporters of the program told him “that the American government has the right to impose its will because the Cuban government is a dictatorship that has no moral authority and no right to deprive its citizens of universal human rights.” The Russians likely have a similar rationale for hacking our presidential campaign.
The argument that Cuba deserves it is a non-starter. As we and many others have argued, the regime change programs taint the Cubans who get caught up in them and inflame hardliners inside Official Cuba to oppose or slow the normalization process. In ways so similar to U.S. politics, this forces President Raúl Castro to protect his left flank. As Fulton Armstrong documented this spring, President Castro in remarks before the Cuban Communist Party Congress, criticized Washington’s efforts to drive political change in Cuba, as “a perverse strategy of political-ideological subversion against the very essence of the revolution and Cuban culture, history, and values.” Regime change programs slow down the normalization process we’d all like to see move faster.
If Russia’s hack of the 2016 election is risky, a threat to national security, and worthy of a response that inflicts pain, doesn’t the pervasive, permanent, costly, and counterproductive policy of seeking to overthrow Cuba’s government – at the same time we are negotiating with its leadership a new normalized relationship – merit condemnation, replacement, or just reconsideration?
We need, as an analyst wrote about the Russia hack this week, repeal of Section 109, or at least a moratorium on regime change activities in Cuba, or else we’ll add justification to the arms race of weaponized meddling in governments like ours.
This week, in Cuba news:
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