A July 4th Story About Democracy Promotion

July 5, 2013

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.

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Cuba and Russia, a tale of two USAID programs; Obama Moves on Terror List (Not on Cuba)

September 21, 2012

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As we published this week’s blast, news alerts were issued that the “People’s Mujehedeen,” or MEK, is being removed from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, based in part, the NY Times is reporting, on the MEK’s cooperation in moving 3,000 of its members out of its long time location in Iraq.  Now that Cuba has recently been recognized for its diplomatic role in peace talks soon to take place between Colombia’s government and the FARC, we would like to believe that Cuba will be rewarded for its cooperation and removed from the State Sponsors of Terror list (see more below).

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We’ve written before about the serious problems posed to U.S. interests by the “regime change” programs financed by USAID and undertaken in Cuba.  We return to this subject this week and want to explain why.

Days ago, the New York Times published this story, Russia Demands U.S. End Support of Democracy Groups.  $50 million in aid will be cut off.  This follows actions by Russia’s government to require organizations which receive such aid to register as foreign agents.  The article makes clear that Russia is now clamping down hard on dissent, but that a number of other U.S. allies have also objected to these programs run by “outside groups telling them how to run their affairs.”

Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, is quoted saying about Russia’s decision to end the USAID role, “It is their sovereign decision to make,” and the Times went on to reflect her view that if Russia didn’t want the money, it could be better spent elsewhere.

Later, the State Department released the transcript of her official briefing in which she explained:

“…we have committed to the Russian Government that there’ll be no new contracting, no new programming, as of October 1st. But we have also asked for some time to wind down the mission, to conclude the programs that we have underway.”

The U.S. government through USAID operates a considerably more aggressive program in Cuba, aimed explicitly at overturning the island’s government.  Cuba outlawed participation in these programs in the late 1990s, as the U.S. government well knows.  Yet, as previously accounted in Foreign Policy, the State Department and USAID have wasted about $200 million conducting these efforts over the past ten years and have little to show for them.

Because they operate covertly, and Cubans who are touched by these programs often know nothing of their provenance, they put the intended beneficiaries at great legal risk – but not only Cubans.  Alan Gross, a USAID contractor, is serving a fifteen-year sentence in a Cuban prison, after entering the island falsely using a tourist visa on five occasions, bringing with him high technology communications equipment, as AP reported, including a specialized mobile chip often used by the Pentagon and CIA when they need to make satellite signals impossible to track.

Mr. Gross has suffered greatly since his arrest on December 9, 2009.  But the administration seems, to put it charitably, somewhat disengaged toward his plight.  As Fulton Armstrong, a retired analyst formerly with the National Security Council and Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explained in the Miami Herald:

“When a covert action run by the CIA goes bad, and a clandestine officer gets arrested, the U.S. government works up a strategy for negotiating his release.  When a covert operative working for USAID gets arrested, Washington turns up the rhetoric….and refuses to talk.”

Alan’s wife, Judy Gross, recently returned from Cuba deeply concerned about his physical condition.  Long-time advocates of cutting off travel to Cuba colorfully call Mr. Gross a hostage, and urge the Obama administration to turn the screws of sanctions tighter to force his release.   The Obama administration’s public posture is to demand that Cuba’s government unilaterally release him, but has never explained why it would do so after he was convicted of violating their laws.

In the case of Russia, the Obama administration was presented with a problem – Russia’s demand to cut off the democracy promotion programs it operates in that country – and it responded by conducting a negotiation to end them, because they recognized Russia’s sovereignty and are willing to find another way to help Russian NGOs.

For Mr. Gross’s predicament, this is the model, and it starts by respecting Cuba’s sovereignty.

Just this week, Cuba’s government again offered to sit down and talk with the United States about resolving his case.  There is no rational reason that should deter our government from doing so.   The two governments should sit down, right away, and hash this out.  Otherwise, the Obama administration must be asked: if it’s prepared to negotiate with Russia on USAID programs, why is it unwilling to do so to free Mr. Gross?

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Arson in Florida and the Shameful Sounds of Silence

June 29, 2012

In April, arson destroyed the offices of Airline Brokers in Coral Gables.  It was a disgraceful act of domestic terror.  But it hasn’t incited the outrage you might expect.

Terrorism, you ask?  Well, yes.

Terrorism has been defined under U.S. law as the “unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”  Arson and the bombing of property used in interstate commerce are among those offenses.

This attack was not a random street crime.  “I am afraid it was intentional,” Vivian Mannerud, the owner said at the time, “because of the indignation over the pope’s visit.”

Airline Brokers was famously involved in arranging travel for 340 Cuban American pilgrims, led by Miami’s Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who went to Cuba in March to witness in Pope Benedict XVI’s visit with the island’s faithful.

It didn’t take long for law enforcement to confirm the worst.  The Coral Gables Fire Department said the fire was deliberately set.

According to the Miami Herald, “A K-9 dog trained to detect accelerants led investigators to three separate spots where the fire at the Airline Brokers Co. began, including an area where a shattered green bottle was found.  Investigators also found a disposable lighter in a doorway outside the southeast corner of the company’s ground-floor office at 815 Ponce De Leon Blvd.” At the beginning of June, investigators released FBI photos of a ‘vehicle of interest.’  Nearly a month has gone by and no suspects have been arrested or named.

This incident might have receded from public memory but for Archbishop Wenski.  Yesterday, he visited Airline Brokers’ temporary office to bless the facility.  He said “that although we do not hate those who perpetrated this deliberate act of arson and we forgive those who ‘trespass against us’,” that those responsible for the act had to be brought to justice.  “Coming here today,” he concluded, “is a gesture of pastoral solicitude, and of solidarity with victims of a crime.”

In contrast, hardliners in the U.S. Congress have done and said nothing to denounce the arson.

Think about that.  Senator Marco Rubio and Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, and David Rivera – who condemn Cuba and its false designation on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List; who use incendiary rhetoric to accuse those who travel to the island of ‘filling the Castro’s coffers’ –have been conspicuously silent about this act of domestic terror visited upon a constituent’s business in their own State.

What about Bill Nelson, Florida’s other Senator?  If you visit his official website (and scroll down), you will find a list of his accomplishments dating back from his service as Florida Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner, and Fire Marshal (no, not kidding).  He earned, he says, top rankings in insurance fraud arrests and convictions, and mounted aggressive investigations of church arson fires.

We gave Senator Nelson’s office the chance to respond to an email asking for comment about the arson at Airline Brokers and heard nothing back.  No surprise.  Arson may be in his sweet spot, but speaking truth to power?  Not so much.  It’s an election year.

In a statement released today, Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFÉ) urged elected officials “to denounce this act of terrorism, no matter the ideology or political position of the victim or the perpetrator…and call publicly for total cooperation with the authorities in the identification and capture of the author or authors of this callous and cowardly attack.”

Someone is protecting the identity of whoever tossed that piece of pavement stone through the window at Airline Brokers and lit the fires that burned the business.  But they’re not telling; and apart from the stand-up citizens who are speaking out, no one representing the people of Florida really seems to care.

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