The Democracy Promotion Paradox – or why Americans hate politics

February 8, 2013

Sometimes our Cuba policy is so farcical, it’s impossible to keep a straight face.

Consider poor Pedro Adriano Borges, age 68 who, according to the Miami Herald is awaiting trial in federal court.  He is charged with ten violations of the Trading with the Enemy Act, money laundering, and other crimes for which he could spend 35 years in prison if convicted.  The underlying charge is this: he shipped $93,000 worth of goods – including light bulbs and diapers, spices and mayonnaise – to Cuba before Congress authorized food trade with the island.  Opening the market to mayonnaise might be considered a crime against Cuban cuisine, but he should hardly be facing jail time in 2013 for an activity that’s been legal for a decade.

Other times, however, the policy is not just farcical, but so internally inconsistent that it edges in the direction of tragedy.  Consider what we continue to learn about the USAID democracy promotion or regime change programs.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report on the programs this week.  Unlike prior studies, which disclosed that U.S. recipients of the funds were wasting them on Godiva chocolates, cashmere sweaters, and Nintendo Game Boys, GAO said the program was being operated with tighter internal controls.  This – along with headlines like “U.S. government report says America’s democracy programs have improved” –undoubtedly delighted USAID, which just last month read this story in the Washington Post:  “Interference with bid-rigging probe alleged at USAID.”

In fact, Marc Lopes, head of USAID’s Latin American and Caribbean section, told the Herald in a phone interview, “We have increased transparency and financial monitoring, and we are pleased that GAO has recognized that.”

But, remember, the GAO makes judgments about accounting, not about policy.  As the Miami Herald reported, U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $205 million dollars on democracy promotion activities since 1996.  There is no evidence that the programs are achieving their objective of hastening a democratic transition in Cuba.  Phil Peters says it well on his Cuban Triangle Blog:

“So the dollars are well accounted for, but as to whether they are being spent in ways that make a positive difference, well, that’s outside the scope of the report.

“Which is worth noting because in the case of USAID’s satellite Internet program run by Alan Gross and other grantees, the dollars may have been perfectly managed and 100 percent accounted for, but they were 100 percent wasted because these operations were rolled up by Cuban intelligence.”

Wasted and obscured from public view.  There is another version of the report, “sensitive but unclassified,” that GAO won’t allow U.S. taxpayers to see.  Even worse, Tracey Eaton, an investigative reporter with whom our organization is working, discovered that USAID hired an outside contractor to review the programs, which found “questionable charges and weaknesses in partners’ financial management, procurement standards, and internal controls.”   But when Mr. Eaton filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get a copy of the outside audit, USAID fought him and then provided only ten pages of material that “omit most findings, recommendations and other key information, including the identity of the aid recipients named in the audit.”

This is more than a little odd coming from USAID which recently gave a $25 million grant to researchers at the University of Texas…(wait for it)….to develop tools that will “Increase Global Aid Transparency.”

Not only that, Mr. Eaton requested an interview with Mr. Lopes a little more than a week ago, and he declined.

Can someone stop the pain?

Not if what President Eisenhower might have called The Cuba-Industrial Complex has anything to say about it.  Although there was scant public mention of democracy promotion at John Kerry’s confirmation hearing, a new round of questions and answers about the program popped up in the Congressional Record, according to “Capitol Hill Cubans,” an eager supporter of regime change in Cuba.

In testimony apparently provided for the record –questions asked and answered in private – Senator Marco Rubio urged Mr. Kerry not to negotiate with Cuba to obtain Alan Gross’s release; not to shut down or rollback democracy programs; and to scrutinize the already legal people-to-people trips to Cuba.  You can read Kerry’s responses here.  We think he gave Senator Rubio no quarter.  To date, Mr. Kerry has made no public statements about whether he’d change the programs that he tried to reform as a member of the U.S. Senate.

But, the bodyguards surrounding USAID’s Cuba programs – the contractors, the pro-sanctions Senators, the array of publicists and polemicists aligned with them – will continue resisting the scrutiny and long-overdue public debate that ought to take place about these wasteful, ineffective, covert-but-not-classified programs that antagonize Cuba and which turn Latin America more broadly against us.

We are reminded of what E.J. Dionne wrote in “Why Americans Hate Politics” –

“With democracy on the march outside our borders, our first responsibility is to ensure that the United States becomes a model for what self-government should be and not an example of what happens to free nations when they lose interest in public life.”

Such is the democracy promotion paradox.

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