How Putin’s Political Hack Could Impact U.S. “Regime Change” Hacks in Cuba

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:

U.S.-Cuba Relations

JetBlue will be the first commercial airline to fly to Cuba – so far, Chabeli Herrera, Miami Herald

On Thursday, JetBlue Airways announced that it will begin operating regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba on August 31, making it the first U.S. airline to do so in more than five decades; Silver Airways and American Airlines each announced earlier this summer that they will begin flights to Cuba on September 1 and September 7, respectively.

JetBlue will run a series of Monday, Wednesday, and Friday flights from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara until October 1, when the flights will operate daily. Beginning in November, the carrier will also fly daily from Fort Lauderdale to Camagüey and Holguín. With ticket prices from $99 one-way and $204 roundtrip, one travel site declared the opening of a “fare war” between American and Jet Blue.

On June 10, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it had authorized direct commercial passenger flights to Cuba for six U.S. carriers. Airlines awarded service to Havana by the DOT have not yet announced the dates when their services will begin.

United States and Cuba Hold Claims DiscussionU.S. Department of State

Diplomats from the U.S. and Cuba met in Washington Thursday for their second round of talks on outstanding certified claims, focusing on property claims of U.S. nationals and the U.S. government, as well as legal judgments of U.S. courts against Cuba. Brian Egan, Legal Adviser for the State Department, led the U.S. delegation, which, as Prensa Latina reports, also included representatives from the Treasury and Justice departments. A senior State Department Official said in a briefing Friday that this round of talks, compared to those held in December, was “more substantive in nature, both in exploring more of the details about the claims that need to be resolved, but also in reviewing the practices of both countries in resolving claims with other countries” and how that may be instructive in the next discussions. U.S. claims on the table, according to the same State Department official, total $1.9 billion, while Cuba’s claims include $2.2 billion in “judgments outstanding against Cuba,” at least $181 in human damages, and at least $121 billion in economic damages.

The first round of talks took place last December in Havana; subsequent discussions have not yet been scheduled.

America’s Conflicted Cuba Policy, Editorial Board, New York Times

In an editorial published this week, the New York Times looks at the last year in U.S.-Cuba relations, noting progress and the continuing obstacles to fully normalized relations. On the U.S. side, the Editorial Board writes, the primary obstacle is anti-normalization legislators: “While the White House promotes engagement as the most promising approach to enable promising change, a stubborn coalition of lawmakers insists that the United States remains morally obligated to keep sanctions in place.” It also highlights the slow pace of economic reforms in Cuba, the drag on Cuba’s economy brought on by turmoil in Venezuela, and pressure exerted by opposition groups seeking political change.  But, it warns Congressional hardliners against using “Cuba’s difficulties as an opportunity to squeeze the octogenarian Castro brothers during their last years in power,” saying, “That would be a mistake.”

South Louisiana port partakes in trade mission to Cuba, American Journal of Transportation

Paul G. Aucoin, Executive Director of the Port of South Louisiana, announced that the port’s commission will sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Cuba’s National Port Administration in October. On July 12, Mike Strain, Commissioner of Louisiana’s Department of Agriculture and Forestry, traveled to Cuba with a 94-person delegation for a weeklong agricultural trade mission. The delegation visited the Mariel Economic Development Zone and met with government and trade officials.

In Cuba

Cuba honors Fidel Castro on National Rebellion Day, EFE

On July 26, Cuba celebrated the 63rd anniversary of the attack on the Moncada military barracks, considered the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. President Raúl Castro, along with José Ramón Machado Ventura, the Second Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, presided over a ceremony in the city of Sancti Spiritus commemorating the event and honoring former President Fidel Castro, who turns 90 in August. Raúl Castro has now been president of Cuba for a decade. AFP reports that President Castro, whose tenure is set to end in 2018, has presided over watershed changes in relations with the U.S. and in Cuba’s economic system, expanding the country’s non-state and foreign-investment sectors.

Mr. Machado Ventura delivered the keynote speech at the July 26 event. He spoke about the island’s tourism and agricultural sectors, and the ongoing public discussion of the economic and social plans produced by the Seventh Party Congress in April, which, he noted, will be finalized in December. In this process, he said, “as many changes [to the economic model] as are needed will be introduced, at the pace we choose. …Each will be the result of the sovereign decision of the Cuban people.”

Venezuela’s economic woes send a chill over closest ally Cuba, Marc Frank, Financial Times

Marc Frank examines how Venezuela’s economic downturn is damaging Cuba’s economy. In remarks before the National Assembly on July 8, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro said the country’s immediate economic challenges stem from the reduction in oil imports from Venezuela, which Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA reports have dropped by 19.5 percent in the first half of 2016. Pavel Vidal, an economist and a former employee of the Central Bank of Cuba, told the Financial Times, “Under current conditions, [Cuban] gross domestic product will dip into negative territory this year and decline 2.9 per cent in 2017. If relations with Venezuela fall apart completely, GDP could decline 10 per cent.”

During the National Assembly meeting, President Castro called on Cuba to cut “all but essential spending,” while on July 1, rationing and energy-conservation policies for some state agencies took effect, including cutting work hours, and reducing use of air conditioning and cars. According to Reuters, energy rationing will not apply to the tourism sector, because of the need for hotels and restaurants with air conditioning.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Historic Commitment By The Government Of Colombia And FARC-EP At The Havana Peace Talks Table, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Huffington Post

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, congratulated Colombia’s government and the FARC-EP for agreeing to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women at the continuing peace talks held in Havana. Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka acknowledged “the discreet but crucial role that countries like Cuba and Norway have played as the formal guarantors of the peace process.” Granma reported that María Paulina Riveros, Cuba’s Director of Human Rights for the Ministry of the Interior, participated in the Gender Sub-Commission that was launched during the talks two years ago to analyze points on the peace agenda from a gender-based perspective.

In June, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and the head of the FARC signed an historic ceasefire and disarmament accord in Havana to bring the country’s 52-year conflict to a close.

Cuba and Mexico Exchange on Modernization of Cuba’s Sugar Industry, ACN

Representatives from the Association of Sugar Technicians of Mexico met with counterparts from the Association of Sugar Technicians of Cuba (ATAC) in Havana for the third meeting in a series of exchanges on improving sugar production in both countries. Eduardo Martínez, President of the ATAC, spoke to ACN about projects Cuba is implementing to modernize its sugar industry, including installing an automated sugarcane-weighing system and updating equipment.

Reuters estimated that Cuba’s total raw sugar output this year will be 300,000 metric tons short of last year’s due to drought and out-of-season rainfall.

Editor’s note: CDA is now accepting applications for our Fall 2016 internship in areas including policy and advocacy and social media. Applications are due by August 12. Please visit our website for more information about how to apply.

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