USAID’s Hip Hop Hiccup and the “Smart Power Prom”

December 12, 2014

A new USAID scandal was exposed yesterday by the exceptional investigative team at the Associated Press.

USAID, acting through its notorious contracting partner, Creative Associates International, tried to infiltrate Cuba’s hip-hop community to intensify the political messaging of its artists and use their fans to foment a rapper’s revolution.

The elaborate plan recruited Cuban musicians for initiatives that included trips to Europe for concerts and video workshops that were actually covers for anti-regime training. The Cuban participants did not know that the U.S. government was behind it.

Cloaked in elaborate secrecy using lawyers, front companies, and banks, the project was also concealed from Members of Congress whose job it was to scrutinize it.  Senator Patrick Leahy, the USAID oversight chairman who first learned of it Thursday, called the effort “reckless” and “stupid,” although the program ended in failure two years before. It seems that only the agency, its contractors, and Cuban state security knew what was going on.

There is a detailed item below that explains the story in nearly all of its troubling dimensions, so we’ll try to avoid duplicating it here. Instead, we focus on what comes through so clearly in the coverage and in AP’s accompanying documents, and that is the air of arrogance that permeates this latest example of the regime change program.

The U.S. completely misses the fact that Cuba has its own rap community that has been leading a conversation on the island about tough issues like race and the system’s stewardship of the revolution since the Soviet Union fell. Our government can’t imagine Cubans deciding for themselves what kind of country they want to build without our training them to do so.

As Phil Peters puts it, “This mentality views Cuban civil society as ours to shape.” You can see this myopic thinking at work in reports by the consultants (their writing is cleaned up for readability) who came to Amsterdam and Madrid to train their unwitting Cuban clients to be rappers for revolution. They found Cubans who were thoughtful, cautious, and not yet ready to take decisions that could put themselves or others at risk:

“Adrian is perceiving that their work is creating a change but he is not sure what type of change…It is my perception that he will need some time to think about change he wants to cause in his community and his personal responsibility.”

“They are perceiving themselves as young artists and they would like to stay in that role (without taking the burden of big responsibilities for societal processes) although they would like to see changes in their community.”

“Trainees were very receptive, motivated and enthusiastic… But, my impression is that they are not quite sure what this they would like to do together is? Or even better why they want to do it”

“My impression is that there is a consensus within the group they want to some changes in their society but it seems they never fully discuss what kind of changes they would like to see.”

What is slowing them down? Just take a look:

“In terms of group dynamic they are quite flat and democratic — they are bringing decisions through discussion. I am sure that was great environment to work within while executing A’s map project (a previous project) but I am not sure it would be best way for the future.”

The group was being too democratic. That must have made their democracy trainer really mad.

You’d like to think that there would be accountability, that somebody would take responsibility for this effort.

Not USAID. In making the debatable claim, “Any assertions that our work is secret or covert are simply false,” they refused to address the damage it inflicted on the existing discourse, or the risks placed on the Cubans from whom USAID involvement was concealed. USAID spokesman Matt Herrick: “It’s not something we are embarrassed about in any way.”

Not the State Department, whose spokesperson said in a briefing yesterday, “these programs are managed with appropriate discretion. So it was the responsibility of the grantee.” By grantee, we suppose she meant Creative Associates International. By responsibility, we think she was saying not the State Department’s problem.

Not the contractor, Creative. We visited the Creative website, and couldn’t find a trace of apology or even a Cuba program. Not in their news or press release page. We couldn’t even find a Cuba-Creative connection when we clicked on a map of the island on the page titled Where We Work. In the overt-covert world where they operate, Cuba seems to vanish without a trace.

We didn’t expect to find an apology because, truthfully, Washington really loves this stuff.

The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition held its annual tribute dinner the other night, an event which wags in Washington call the “Smart Power Prom.” Who was dubbed this year’s “Smart Power Prom King”? USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.

The dinner was also a coronation of sorts for Senator Lindsay Graham, who will take the gavel from Senator Pat Leahy and chair the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee when the new Congress convenes in January. The subcommittee oversees Dr. Shah and the programs he administers at USAID.

A trade reporter at the event quoted Graham as saying, “I challenge any other part of the American government to prove a better return on investment than USAID.”

He said that at dinner on Wednesday. If he stands by that statement today, well, that’s kind of sad.

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From the Bay of Pigs to the Bay of Tweets

April 18, 2014

Yesterday, The John F. Kennedy Library posted a “JFK in History” piece to mark the 53rd anniversary of what it called “a botched invasion at the Bay of Pigs on the south coast of Cuba.”

The invasion was a CIA covert operation with the goal of overthrowing the Castro government.  Kennedy was determined to conceal U.S. support for the operation and, as the entry explains, the “landing point at the Bay of Pigs was part of the deception.”  In the days before April 17th, the operation was exposed, American support for the invasion was revealed, and the small army composed largely of Cuban exiles was defeated.

It is no accident of history that ZunZuneo, the faux “Cuban Twitter” program revealed this month by the Associated Press, has been ridiculed in headlines as “The Bay of Tweets.”  Fifty-three years later, the United States is still engaged in activities to overthrow Cuba’s government, and still misusing the dark arts of government secrecy and deniability to obscure them, with consequences so familiar, it is as if a new generation of public officials has arrived at positions of power ignorant of their own country’s history.

In the 1970s, The Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, led by Senator Frank Church, was formed to review a series of efforts to overthrow foreign governments, spy on U.S. citizens, and conceal those activities from the Congress and the American people.  Time and again, the Committee invoked the Bay of Pigs as evidence of the damage that is inflicted on our national security and the U.S. system by excessive reliance on secrecy.

As the Committee wrote in its final report:

“The task of democratic government is to reconcile conflicting values…Reliance on covert action has been excessive because it offers a secret shortcut around the democratic process.  This shortcut has led to questionable foreign involvements and unacceptable acts…Finally, secrecy has been a tragic conceit.  Inevitably, the truth prevails, and policies pursued on the premise that they could be plausibly denied, in the end damage America’s reputation and the faith of her people in their government.”  Final Report, Page 16.

Following the report, Congress established a more formal system of oversight over intelligence activities and strengthened the legal requirements for the White House and executive branch agencies to report intelligence activities and covert actions.

Fast forward from the Bay of Pigs and the Church Committee to ZunZuneo, and you can see why some reporters are following the scandal so closely and why experts like Professor Bill LeoGrande have directly challenged repeated government denials that the program was covert:

“USAID’s ZunZuneo program meets the two key definitional attributes of a covert action: it was intended to influence Cuban politics, and the U.S. government’s role was intentionally hidden.”

In the earlier stages of the story, USAID flatly denied that ZunZuneo had any intent to influence Cuba’s politics.  As the AP reported, when Senator Patrick Leahy asked administrator Rajiv Shah whether its goal was to “influence political conditions abroad” or “to encourage popular opposition to the Cuban government,” Shah replied “No, that is not correct.”

Once AP published patently political text messages from ZunZuneo that contradicted Dr. Shah’s testimony, the State Department started ducking questions at its daily briefing from reporters asking for an inventory of the text messages.

Indeed, on April 9April 11April 14, and April 17, when reporters asked questions like “How goes the USAID review of these allegedly political text messages?,” the answer from the State Department has been Nothing new to report today,” “I would encourage you to check in with my colleagues at USAID,” and, “I don’t have any updates from here. I know they’re looking into it.”

Such evasions can’t really work when the facts point so strongly to covert actions that should have been reported to the Congress.  As Peter Kornbluh explained in an interview to Jeremy Bigwood:  “Zunzuneo had all the components of a classic covert action: shell companies, off-shore bank accounts, managerial cutouts, multinational locations, the goal of regime change, and, of course, the hidden hand of the United States government.”

Therefore, as Bill LeoGrande writes, “under the law (50 U.S. Code § 3093 (a)), [it] required a presidential finding and notification of the Congressional intelligence committees. Those obligations do not appear to have been met.”

And so we have our Bay of Tweets: another covert action, another effort to conceal the truth from the American people, another deceit in our endless mission to bring democracy to Cuba.

But, more than lies lie in the balance.  As Gary Hart, a member of the Church Committee, wrote a few years ago:

“A democracy that violates the rights and privacy of its citizens and conceals its activities from them edges dangerously near something other than a democracy.  The most radical of our founders, Thomas Jefferson, held that the best guarantor of the American republic was the good judgment and common sense of the American people, a people fully informed of the activities of its government on their behalf.”

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The Download on Cuba and the News Blast

March 14, 2014

This week, the News Blast is bursting with developments in Cuba and U.S. policy.

We imagine you want to get to it, so we’ll keep our introductory remarks – harrumph – relatively brief.

Earlier this week, we came across a well-worn speech delivered by President John F. Kennedy at the University of Washington in 1961.  This address came about a half-year after the Bay of Pigs invasion, nearly a full year before the Cuban Missile Crisis.

You can listen to the entire speech here and reach your own conclusions.  When we read his address, these two paragraphs nearly jumped off the page, and seemed to be written with a pen that could have described the world we see today.

We must face problems which do not lend themselves to easy or quick or permanent solutions. And we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient – that we are only six percent of the world’s population – that we cannot impose our will upon the other ninety-four percent of mankind – that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity – and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.

These burdens and frustrations are accepted by most Americans with maturity and understanding. They may long for the days when war meant charging up San Juan Hill -or when our isolation was guarded by two oceans-or when the atomic bomb was ours alone – or when much of the industrialized world depended upon our resources and our aid. But they now know that those days are gone – and that gone with them are the old policies and the old complacencies. And they know, too, that we must make the best of our new problems and our new opportunities, whatever the risk and the cost.

Though Kennedy was an architect of the Cold War, there is evidence – as Peter Kornbluh and others have reported – that he saw the futility of trying to impose our will on Cuba in his day.  One might predict his astonishment that we are still trying to impose our will on Cuba in our day as well.

Our national fixation on Cuba did not begin with Fidel Castro or the Revolution in 1959.  It has been a part of this country’s historical arc, indeed an imperative of the U.S. national interest, since 1803.  That is the argument – offered with a precise mind and graceful hand – by Louis A. Pérez, renowned scholar at the University of North Carolina, in his forthcoming article, “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.”

Lou has offered us the opportunity to publish his study of how Cuba has coursed through our foreign policy and the veins of our national character for the better part of three centuries.  It reminds us of how we got here; how we arrived at the point when sanctions have lasted longer than our refusal to recognize the Soviet Union or China, years longer than it took us to reconcile with Vietnam, so long that Cuba has been under U.S. sanctions for almost half of its national existence as an independent republic.

This and more is captured in Lou’s piece, including the sadness in his description of why a failed policy has remained so long in place; “its continuance has no other purpose than to serve as a justification for its longevity.”

Much of what we do – what motivates our work, our trips to Cuba, our research, our passionate advocacy for reforming the policy, and especially the news blast we send you every week – is about living in the world John Kennedy foresaw in 1961, and finding new ways for Cuba and the U.S. to reach past this history and build a new relationship based on dignity and respect.

In the coming weeks, we will notify you in a separate blast about how you can download Lou’s piece absolutely free of charge.

In the meanwhile, we ask you this.

If you share our love of history and our belief in engagement; if you read the blast, support our work, and plan to download the article by Lou Pérez, why not give something back?

This news blast is a project of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) – a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in DC. We take no government money, of course, but instead depend on the generosity of readers like you.

We deliver this news and analysis every Friday, and we’re glad it’s useful to you. But we could also really use your help.

There are others who compile Cuba news, and they charge for it.  We never have.  But if you can help us, it would really make a difference. Please consider making a donation today – large or small. Consider a one-time gift or a monthly pledge of $5, $10, $20. Our website makes it really easy.

But first you have to want to give back, and we hope you do. Please donate today.

We thank you very, very much!

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Let the ends justify the means

March 7, 2014

“That is an absolute lie.”

This is what Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart told the New York Times, after its correspondent, Damien Cave said “clearly a majority” of the American public supports a change in policy in Cuba.

Except it’s not a lie. The American public made up its mind years ago that the embargo ought to go. The results Mr. Díaz-Balart questioned from last month’s Atlantic Council poll weren’t off the mark; their results track just what Florida International University found in its 2011 poll and numerous others have, before and since.

Rep. Díaz-Balart disparaged the Council’s survey just as he did in February, using the same language Elliot Abrams used  on Valentine’s Day; how Robin Wapner described the poll in the Los Angeles Times today. They call it a “push poll.”

Except, it wasn’t.  Why would Glen Bolger, the highly-respected Republican pollster of Public Opinion Strategies — who’s worked for the Florida Republican Party, Governor Jeb Bush, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and the Wall Street Journal — produce a survey that rattled the embargo establishment and relied on what experts call  “an unethical political campaign technique… masquerading as legitimate political polling.” Why would he do that? [Hint:  he didn’t.]

Then there’s the case of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who delivered a speech on the Senate floor after visiting  Cuba for a trip that examined “the strengths and weaknesses of Cuba’s public health system.”  This was not Harkin’s first trip to the island; he first visited Guantánamo as an active duty Navy jet pilot during Vietnam, flying missions in support of U-2 planes that spied on Cuba.

This was too much for Senator Marco Rubio (neither a veteran nor a visitor to Cuba), who gave a floor speech that  “ripped” Harkin, “destroyed” Harkin, “blasted” Harkin, and “unloaded” on Harkin, as his blogosphere fans said, for using what Rubio called unreliable statistics provided by Cuba’s government to admire the country’s infant mortality rate.

Except, Harkin was right.  There are many statistics used to measure Cuba’s health system that are accepted globally — for example, to demonstrate that Cuba has fulfilled the primary education, gender equality, and child mortality Millennium Development Goals, or to gauge Cuba’s progress in achieving national literacy, expanding life expectancy, and reducing infant mortality, as the World Economic Forum has done.  This doesn’t mean the figures should not be debated, they should; but it’s hard to dismiss them outright.

Next, consider Cuba’s economic reforms.  More than ten percent of state jobs — close to 600,000 thousands positions — have been eliminated since 2009.   Estimates vary, but at least 450,000 Cubans can now work in private sector jobs because of liberalizations championed by President Raúl Castro.  This is a big change for Cuba, as we reported in Cuba’s New Resolve, and published this year on what the reforms mean for Cuban women.

We also hosted five Cuban nationals on a trip to the U.S.  last year, who explained to the Washington policy community how the ability to start a business, employ other Cubans, make more money, and take their own decisions gives them greater ownership over their lives.  Cuban-Americans in Florida sense that too; as the New York Times documented this week, “Some Who Fled Cuba Are Returning to Help,” they are sending investment capital, sharing business expertise, and promoting bilateral engagement – many after spending decades fighting the Castro government.

The naysayers about economic reform in Cuba are not the people making the trips to the island, but rather are the elected officials and embargo lobbyists who refuse to go, who won’t concede the Cuban economy is reforming, and who seek instead to maintain the embargo just as it is.  Time and again, when Damien Cave asked about the Cuban-Americans who are traveling to Cuba and helping the reforms along, Rep. Díaz-Balart answered his question with a defense of the embargo.

This is a classic confusion of ends and means.  Even if you support the embargo — we don’t, and we’re part of a large majority that even includes Yoani Sánchez hoping for its demise — what you presumably want is good things for Cuba’s people, not a perpetuation of the embargo for its own sake.  And yet, if economic reform produces more prosperity and choice, or if public opinion among Cuban-Americans has shifted and they want to achieve their vision of Cuba through different means, the response of the hardliners is attack, discredit, rip, blast, and unload.

This strikes us as wrong.  Democracies function better when they debate ideas rather than deny them.  Without accurate information, democratic politics becomes impossible.  If the embargo is more important than that, then what’s the point?

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The Post, The Times, and the Cuba Consular Service Cut Off

February 21, 2014

This week, it seemed like the train left the tracks at the Washington Post.

In its editorial, “Cuba’s changes are no more than window dressing,” the editorial board’s routine scolding of Cuba’s government became unusually frenzied when it compared the digital alteration of pictures, removing a hearing aid normally seen in Fidel Castro’s ear, to “the modern day version of Stalinist airbrushing.”

A similar tone of desperation marched into coverage by TV Martí, which recently spent more than 3 minutes of its news broadcast questioning Rep. Kathy Castor’s motives for bringing Cuba’s top diplomat in the U.S., José Ramón Cabañas, to her Tampa, Florida district on a trip that was approved by the U.S. State Department.

We share the wonder of CAFÉ, Cuban Americans for Engagement, when one arm of the United States government, Radio/TV Martí, spends taxpayer money attacking a member of Congress for helping to carry out the policies of the executive branch.

While newspapers in our country don’t speak with one voice – and the Los Angeles Times showed again this week how it whips the Post in its understanding of what’s really happening in Cuba and globally – we do expect clarity and competence from the U.S. government in implementing its policy, and we think it should be called out when it doesn’t meet that standard.

For more than six months, the administration has known that M&T Bank was pulling out of the business of providing financial services to embassies’ consular operations.  While there’s never been a particularly clear explanation for its decision, we do know that M&T – like others in its industry – faced regulatory risks in the post 9/11 environment, and that M&T had a takeover delayed by the Federal Reserve because of its concerns with the bank’s anti-money-laundering compliance program.

Even as the State Department and Cuba’s government have labored to find a financial institution willing to submit to the risks which drove M&T from the business – and thus enable American travelers to Cuba to have their visas processed by the Cuban Interests Section – this is not getting to the larger problem.

We have an incoherent U.S. policy that promotes travel by Americans of Cuban descent and other hand-picked categories of U.S. travelers, but makes it illegal for most other Americans to visit the island; one U.S. policy that identifies travel as a unique means for reaching out to the Cuban people, while others – including Cuba’s false, politically-driven inclusion on the State Sponsors of Terror list –  put real restraints on the financial transactions needed for families to visit families in Cuba and for people-to-people exchanges to take place.

Of course, Cuba should be removed from the State Sponsors List. No, we don’t believe that Cuba’s government is engaging in “blatant emotional blackmail,” as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen alleged. Using the travel cut-off to pressure the U.S. into unwinding its position on the terror list simply doesn’t make sense because, frankly, tourism is good for Cuba’s economy and the businesses of its private entrepreneurs.

A temporary work-around that gets banking services restored to Cuba’s consular services will be a good first-step, but more is needed.  As we reported last week, a majority of Americans and an even larger majority of Floridians believe that fundamental changes in U.S. – Cuba policy ought to be made.

Among them, as the Associated Press previously reported, is a Cuban-American powerbroker named Jorge Pérez.  His wealth just enabled him to open a museum in Miami and, unlike the Washington Post, Mr. Pérez probably knows a relic when he sees one.

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¡Azúcar!

February 7, 2014

A few years back, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen invited a Congressional reporter to observe her daily ritual of making Cuban coffee.  She percolated a pot of Café Bustelo, placed “a healthy amount of sugar,” in a separate cup, and then added “a few drops of coffee into the sugar.”

She stirred aggressively, “that’s what makes the ‘espuma’ or the foam” she explained. “Thicker foam makes for better coffee.  That’s the mystique.  Well, that and the sugar.”

As she tells her staff: “You can’t have too much sugar.”

Now, thanks to Alfy Fanjul, whose recent interview in the Washington Post triggered a reaction among embargo supporters akin to an immense sugar rush, she’s probably cutting back.

If tobacco bound the agonized history of the American South to the broader national experience, sugar is the commodity that has tied the United States, Cuba, and Florida – our people, our economies, our politics – together for three centuries.

Louis Pérez, in his landmark work, On Becoming Cuban, chronicles the pervasive influence of U.S. corporations on the island felt most powerfully at the sugar mill.  Sugar was the feedstock for the wealth and power amassed by Cuba’s most influential families for generations before the revolution; among them, the Fanjul family, which started its sugar operations in the 1850s.  Fidel Castro’s father, Ángel Castro raised sugar cane; and his son experienced the allure but also the exclusion of foreign corporate sugar interests which, according to one history, “enraged” him.

The United States was Cuba’s largest market for sugar exports.  The industry’s mills were among the first U.S. assets nationalized by the revolution.  President Eisenhower in December 1960 retaliated by prohibiting the imports of sugar in the U.S.; the following year, sugar plantations were targeted for bombings and shipments of Cuban sugar were targets for contamination.

The Fanjul family fled the island for Florida, which soon replaced Cuba as this country’s sugar bowl.  They reestablished their business, and began selling sugar under brand names like Domino and Jack Frost. According to one report, their holdings include more than 400,000 acres of land, with holdings that comprise as much as 12% of Palm Beach County, operations in 20 U.S. states, Canada, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico.

With politics as their industry’s protection, the Depression-era farm program that props up domestic sugar growers has been immune to the cuts that have hit nearly all other federally-supported commodities. This has enriched the Fanjuls, some estimates say, by as much as $60 million annually, while raising food prices, as Progreso Weekly reports, for us all.

Naturally, a fraction of this money is recycled into the system through campaign contributions to friends in Congress who vote with Big Sugar, philanthropy to public causes, and support to the institutions painstakingly built in Florida and Washington to keep the embargo in place, while the most hardened enemies of the Cuban government cling to the embargo and wait for the Castro brothers to die.

This notion of a “biological solution” fixing Cuba, so alive in the minds of some exiles, has never succumbed to realities such as the long life spans of Fidel and Raúl Castro or the implausibility of their successors giving up what they spent their lives creating.  Paradoxically, there is a counterpart notion in the minds of Cuba policy reformers; namely, that this stupid embargo policy will never die until patriarchs like Alfy Fanjul “age out” of the South Florida political demographic as well.

In his interview with the Washington Post, Mr. Fanjul told reporters about his travels to Cuba, his meetings with the foreign minister, and his willingness to make investments in Cuba.

Significantly, Mr. Fanjul would invest without waiting for Cuba to satisfy the preconditions written into the Helms-Burton law by public officials, many of whom his family has supported financially, which otherwise require the embargo to remain in place.

As Phil Peters wrote this week, “Short of Jorge Mas Canosa arising from the dead and saying, ‘Never mind,’ it’s hard to think of a bigger shift in the Miami political landscape than the news that the Fanjul brothers have traveled to Cuba and would like to invest there.”

To put it mildly, these statements from someone the Post called “one of the principal funders of the U.S. anti-Castro movement,” enraged leading supporters of U.S. sanctions on Cuba.  Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who last year published an op-ed denouncing Cuba’s government for “enforcing political conformity” using “public acts of repudiation,” repudiated Mr. Fanjul for deviating from the hardliner’s hardline.

Rep. Diaz-Balart said, “Some might be blind to the Castro regime’s brutality and ruthless oppression, but Alfonso Fanjul’s betrayal is compounded because he knows better. In her statement, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said, “it’s pathetic that a Cuban-American tycoon feels inspired to trample on the backs of those activists in order to give the communist thugs more money with which to repress.”

One critic predicted Fanjul would soon be hiring Cuban slaves to produce sugar.  Another demanded a Congressional inquiry into his travel and concluded his post: Mr. Fanjul, “your travel papers please.”  The former staff director of the House Foreign Relations Committee proposed a policy change to deny any recipient of farm subsidies the right to travel to Cuba.

It’s hardly a surprise that the Fanjul interview sparked such a vitriolic family feud.  Change is unsettling, but never more so when the prospect of change occupies such a distant horizon, as it has in Cuba and the U.S. for so many decades.  Located there, change can be foreboding, not hopeful.

We’ve been tantalized and disappointed by the auguries of change before.  And yet, what is happening now makes so much sense: movement toward normalization before the revolutionary generation in Cuba “ages out,” sped forward by a 76-year-old exile living in South Florida who says he just wants to do business back home and reunite the family.

Most of us believe this is where history was taking us anyhow.  If this leaves a bitter aftertaste with the remaining supporters of the embargo; well, isn’t that what sugar is for?

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INTERNUTS – U.S. Sanctions Block Cuban Students from On-Line Courses

January 31, 2014

According to the Associated Press, technology experts are gathering in Miami today to “brainstorm ways to improve access to the Internet and information” for the people of Cuba.

Unless their solutions include ending the U.S. embargo, their brainstorms will amount to little more than a light drizzle.

Their meeting occurs at the same moment students in Cuba (as well as Iran, Sudan, and Syria) have lost access to on-line classes offered by Coursera, a social entrepreneurship company which, as Al-Jazeera notes, offers MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, to millions of students in over 180 countries.

When they try to go to class, students get this message instead:

“Our system indicates that you are attempting to access the Coursera site from an IP address associated with a country currently subject to U.S. economic and trade sanctions.  In order for Coursera to comply with U.S. export controls, we cannot allow you access to the site.”

This cut-off is, of course, big news and, as one Internet expert suggested, very hard to explain:  “My first reaction was anger that the Cuban government would block educational material — maybe they were trying to censor something from a Latin American history class?”

To be sure, Cuba is uncomfortable with the Internet and access to the web is meager compared to its neighbors in the region.  But Cuba is not the cause of this problem.

Cuban students got shut out of their classes because, as the company wrote on its blog, “Under [U.S.] law, certain aspects of Coursera’s course offerings are considered services and are therefore subject to restrictions in sanctioned countries.”

We have often used this page to illustrate the costs and futility of our Cuba policy: the Cuban-American war hero barred from visiting his sons on the island, American diabetics unable to obtain a medication that could save them from amputations, the global condemnation of the U.S. embargo delivered annually by the UN.

But, after our country staked so much of our foreign policy on the Internet as an instrument of free expression, this story takes the cake.

Back in 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made our position clear: “We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” With this declaration as its guiding light, the State Department forged ahead.

The State Department built partnerships between the U.S. government and Internet companies to engage students globally through education. When the Department joined forces with (believe it or not) Coursera, this is what Meghann Curtis, deputy assistant secretary for academic programs said:

“The State Department and USAID promote a more peaceful, prosperous world, and we all know one of the best ways to get there is to ensure that all people have access to high-quality education.”

 How do we “ensure” such a thing?  We get tough.  In November 2012, the United States imposed sanctions on several people in Iran for Internet censorship.  Explaining the action, then-State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Washington was determined to stop the “Iranian government from creating an ‘electronic curtain’ to cut Iranian citizens off from the rest of the world.”

Or, we get crafty.  In Cuba, our government engages in risky schemes using taxpayers’ money to “boost Internet activism,” as the State Department advertised last year:

“Digital Tools for Safe and Effective Civil Society Initiatives (subject to the availability of funding, approximately $850,000):  The project should provide Cuban activists with ongoing capacity building and assistance to increase their level of technological proficiency and their ability to utilize new and existing technologies in a secure manner.”

This last clause is a reminder to applicants that the Helms-Burton program that funds these initiatives is illegal under Cuban law; just ask Alan Gross.

In other words, U.S. policy has made an implicit choice:  While our sanctions broadly restrict access by Cuban students to educational content on the Internet, the government funds covert activities to give that access selectively to Cubans reached by our regime change programs.

As CDA’s Lisa Ndecky Llanos told Inter Press Service:

 “The stated U.S. policy is that they want to enable Cubans to access information and be a part of a global community, but in this instance the policy is doing the exact opposite of that.”

When Meghann Curtis was interviewed about State’s partnership with Coursera, she told Fast Company magazine: “One of the classes is American foreign policy. I think that will make an extremely rich forum to debate the issues.”

Rich indeed!  One class that Cuban students can’t access is called “21st Century American Foreign Policy,” taught by Professor Bruce Jentleson, whose course description reads:  “What is American foreign policy? Who makes it? Why is it the way it is?”

Why is Cuba policy the way it is?  It tries to fix a Cold War problem with sanctions that do not apply to the Internet Century.  While Coursera meets with well-intentioned Treasury and State Department officials to make the service it offers “not a service,” we think the root of this problem is more akin to a “Flashing 12.”

Know the expression?  That’s when you walk into someone’s house and their VCR is stuck “Flashing 12:00,” because they cannot figure out how to program it.  You just can’t reprogram the embargo to make it work, you have to end it.

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