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.

Read the rest of this entry »


Tilting at Windmills

May 16, 2014

At a time when Russia is strengthening its security alliance with Cuba and the European Union is moving to replace its Common Position of isolation with intensified diplomatic engagement, why is the United States still tilting at the windmills of the Cold War?

***

When our Cuba program began visiting the island over a decade ago, it was hard to find a Cuban who had a kind word to say about Russia. They felt betrayed.  Once the Soviet Union fell, and its subsidies were withdrawn, the Cuban economy and living standards collapsed.  “We lost our sense of the future,” a professor memorably told us.

Of course, during the Cold War, most Americans hated the Soviets (and Cuba) too.  As Dr. Lou Pérez reminds us in “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,” Cuba’s alliance with the U.S.S.R., and especially the Missiles of October in 1962, focused U.S. policy on “arresting and reversing” Soviet encroachment in the hemisphere and on “punishing Cuba for aiding and abetting Soviet expansion.”

For decades, we acted out this U.S. obsession, leaving deep scars across the hemisphere and punishing Cuba with sanctions that remain in place so long after the Cold War ended.

This history came to mind when Russia’s Security Council and Cuba’s Commission for National Security and Defense met in Moscow to sign a cooperation deal on security; a development that attracted virtually no press coverage; except, poetically, by the Voice of America. Cuba, for its part, is pursuing its self-interest and looking forward.

Europe has also put the Cold War in its rear-view mirror.  For years, former Eastern bloc nations kept the European Union from changing its policy of diplomatic isolation toward Cuba, what it called the “Common Position,” adopted the same year as the Helms-Burton law, though crafted with a lighter touch.

This year, however, the EU decided to replace isolation with engagement.  Its diplomats are directly talking to Cuban counterparts about trade and investment, development cooperation, governance and human rights.  A joint meeting concluded in Havana two weeks ago with a roadmap for moving forward, formal negotiations planned every two months, and an agreement to have “informal contacts,” as the Latin Post reported, in between.

It’s not possible from this vantage point to see where the EU-Cuba negotiations will lead.  But, they represent an important transformation by both sides; Cuba, as Carlos Alzugaray observed, entered the talks without preconditions.  He quotes Vice President Díaz Canel as saying the government would favor anything that can be constructed on the basis of respect.

What this means, ironically, is that Cuba and the EU have taken John Kerry’s advice, offered in his remarks before the OAS, when the Secretary of State envisioned Latin America as a region with  “Countries viewing one another as equals, sharing responsibilities, cooperating on security issues, and adhering not to doctrine, but to the decisions that we make as partners to advance the values and the interests that we share.”

This is what the United States ought to be doing, too.  To his credit, President Obama restarted talks on migration and restoring mail service; he is also allowing scientists and environmentalists, even some with U.S. government jobs, to collaborate on the environment.

But, he has gone this far and not further.  Just this week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, said publicly that Cuba must meet political preconditions before the U.S. will consider advancing the relationship.

Meanwhile, U.S. citizens are paying for costly schemes – like a self-help video with its “incredible disappearing $450,000 contract” discovered by Tracey Eaton, and ZunZuneo, USAID’s Twitter Trojan Horse, uncovered by the AP – that reflect the Cold War mentality of sneaking into Cuba through the backdoor, when our government ought to be engaging with Cuba openly and respectfully and with the region on the interests we share.

That means working with Panama to avert a region-wide boycott at next year’s Summit of the Americas by ensuring that Cuba, as Francisco Álvarez de Soto, Panama’s Foreign Minister, said, is “brought into the OAS and all their forums.” It means directly engaging with Cuba, as U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee and her delegation advocated, without preconditions, so we can finally obtain the release of Alan Gross.

***

People who seek a new relationship with Cuba are at worst called “appeasers.” At best, they are considered naïve.  That’s what his opponent called then-Senator Obama, when he talked about negotiating with Cuba in 2008.  We liked his position then, when he responded: “There’s nothing more naïve than continuing a policy that has failed for decades.”

But five years later, when Secretary Kerry told the OAS, “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is dead,” he couldn’t get many in the audience to applaud.  Perhaps they found him naïve.

Read the rest of this entry »


Colonel Campbell, Guantánamo, and righting wrongs

March 21, 2014

When Army Col. Larry Campbell approached the podium on February 22nd to deliver his remarks to The Black Heritage Organization to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, he did nothing wrong.

To the contrary, he spoke truths that deserved the attention of a wider audience.

In his address, Col. Campbell was plainspoken about our nation’s history of racism and resentment; about the generations who came and went without enjoying full and equal dimensions of their citizenship; and the walls of resistance that the Civil Rights Movement had to scale in the – still incomplete – fight for equality.

He said with pride that “military formations are fully integrated,” without pausing over the remarkable fact that the armed services were the first major American institution to integrate or the hard truth that it took five years for Harry Truman’s executive order to be implemented for 95% of African American soldiers to serve in integrated units.

Col. Campbell used the occasion to express his abiding faith in the democratic process and in his country’s capacity for self-correction.  Yet, neither we nor you would have heard about his speech had the news about the event not been subject to such ridicule.

Why? Because the Black Heritage Organization, which held its annual Black History Month banquet, and invited Col. Campbell to speak, happens to be located at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Yes, Guantánamo; where books like “The Gulag Archipelago” and “The African American Slave” cannot be read by the prisoners who are detained there; where the prisoner detentions compromise the position of the United States on human and civil rights.

So, when an article was published with the headline, GTMO celebrates 50 years of civil rights in America, well-meaning bloggers just couldn’t help themselves.  What followed was snark like this, “I can’t say much for the event, but that headline…,” and snark like this, “It’s a holiday in Guantánamo!”  It was all about the jokes, without making much time for understanding what was really going on.

That’s a shame.  Neither Col. Campbell nor the Black Heritage Organization are responsible for what is taking place on Guantánamo now, nor are they accountable for the larger historical error represented by the U.S. hanging onto Cuban land, or U.S.-Cuba policy writ large.

We need to be clear about Guantánamo.

We talked about it in our book about promoting U.S.-Cuba engagement, in the chapter contributed by Gen. James T. Hill, who wrote about the cooperation that takes place over the fence posts between Cuba’s armed forces (FAR) and our own military, and the work they could do together to enhance both country’s security.

Like many of our readers, we would like to see the prison at Guantánamo closed for good.  We supported the patriotic efforts of former White House counsel Greg Craig to achieve this objective. While gestures like the one offered by Uruguay’s President José Mujica, who expressed his willingness to accept Guantánamo detainees into his country, alleviate some of the suffering, we hope that Clifford Sloan is able to complete the job Greg Craig started, and soon.

Plans exist — like the detailed proposal crafted by Michael Parmly, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana — for addressing the issue of the detainees imprisoned at Guantánamo, and returning rightful ownership to Cuba of land that’s been wrongfully under U.S. control for over a century. The European Union is hard at work changing its foreign policy toward Cuba.

In other words, the problems of U.S.-Cuban relations and Guantánamo do not require new proposals or special thinking to get solved; they require leadership and the determination to make decisions and see them through to the end, the same ingredients that made the integration of the U.S. military and the passage of the Civil Rights Act possible.

Those of us who advocate for Cuba policy reform, but are discouraged by the pace of change in Washington, might take hope from the message that Col. Campbell delivered at Guantánamo’s Civil Rights Act celebration: “History has always afforded this Nation the ability to right a wrong and press forward by not repeating the same mistakes of the past.”

We couldn’t agree more.  That’s why we wanted to bring the Colonel’s speech to our readers’ attention.

Read the rest of this entry »


On Warriors Cold and Happy

September 13, 2013

Here at Cuba Central, we explore all points of view and publish our news summary minus the kind of invective that discourages so many of us about debating ideas that matter.

So, when a group across town bridled at being labeled “Cold Warriors” for, as they put it, opposing “Cuba’s dictatorship,” that made us stop and wonder if they had a point.

It’s very hard to argue the proposition that U.S. policy toward Cuba and all of Latin America was and is based on thinking straight out of the Cold War playbook.

As Thomas Carothers wrote in his book, In the Name of Democracy, “After World War II, the overriding concern of the United States in Latin America became fighting communism, or more specifically, trying to prevent the emergence of left-leaning governments and seeking to oust the ones that did emerge.”

In fact, the U.S. did work to topple governments as it did in Guatemala and Chile, as the National Security Archives documented again this week, with new revelations about Henry Kissinger and the coup against Salvador Allende, and stopped leftist parties from winning democratic elections in places like El Salvador.  Even as the Cold War waned, that is what U.S. policy did.

Much of this has subsided in the hemisphere; except, most notably, in Cuba, where normal trade and diplomatic relations with the U.S. remain suspended.  Where operations -–overt or semi-covert -– are still underway (ask Alan Gross).  Radio and TV Martí, costly broadcast operations jammed by Cuba’s government and hardly heard by any Cubans, are still housed alongside Radio Free Europe.  It’s all stuff of the Cold War, with the occasional spot shine and sheen of social media to give it a modern glow.

Back in the 1950s, Bob Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, made headlines when he called President Eisenhower a “lackey,” and a “conscious, dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy.” Senator Joseph McCarthy accused opponents of siding with the enemy and appeasement.  A Mandarin Chinese term, to kowtow, or knock one’s head, was repurposed to disparage Americans who disagreed with protecting Taiwan and isolating China.

No surprise then that those who defend the hardline against Cuba so often take Cold War rhetoric out of cold storage for use in the debates of today.  Like when the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting declared that Cardinal Jaime Ortega was a “lackey” of the Cuban government after the Cardinal facilitated the release of scores of political prisoners.

Or when Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart said in an op-ed, “Since he took office in January 2009, President Obama has pursued a policy of appeasement toward the totalitarian Cuban dictatorship.”  Or when former Rep. David Rivera double-dipped his pen in Cold War ink and called attempts by the Obama administration to free Alan Gross “Efforts at appeasement and kowtowing to the Cuban regime.”

Such word games over who is wearing a Cold War label would have struck our friend Saul Landau, a happy warrior, funny.  Before he succumbed to bladder cancer this week at age 77, Saul liked to say, “Cancer, smancer, as long as I have my health.”

In a week that marked a string of emotional milestones – the 40th anniversary of the coup in Chile, the 15th anniversary of the arrests of the Cuban Five, the 12th anniversary of 9/11 – Saul’s death in a sad but strangely exquisite way, followed the arc of his singular life.

He produced 40 films and 14 books.  He was a poet and an investigative journalist.  He wrote a detective novel at the end of his career and a play for a mime troupe at the beginning.  The New York Times says his activism was triggered during college in Wisconsin where he joined a club “which advocated the recall of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin over his demagogic attacks on people he accused of being Communists.”

In 1968, after he produced his documentary, “Fidel,” premiers of the film in New York and Los Angeles were cancelled after firebomb attacks on the theaters.

He won an Emmy Award and a George F. Polk Award for his documentary, “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang,” which recounted how the health effects from a 1957 nuclear test were covered up.

His colleagues at IPS called him “a fearless human rights activist,” and for good reason.  After documenting the election of Salvador Allende as president of Chile, he befriended Orlando Letelier, the country’s ambassador to the U.S., who he then helped save after Gen. Pinochet overthrew Chile’s democratically-elected government and tossed Mr. Letelier in jail.

The coup unleashed a torrent of torture, disappearances, and death in Chile, and the murderous hand of the Pinochet government reached all the way to Embassy Row in Washington.  As Phil Brenner told us, “when Pinochet’s thugs repeatedly threatened his life –- after demonstrating their seriousness by killing Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt in 1976 –- Saul persevered in unearthing the evidence that led to their convictions and imprisonment.”

As IPS recalled, his last film, “Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up?” tells the history of U.S.-Cuba relations through the lens of the Cuban 5.

Year after year, Saul followed the courage of his convictions and then a long list of academics and activists, experienced and emerging, inspired by his work, followed him.

Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive wrote us, “He was a rare combination of political activist, philosopher provocateur, storyteller, movie maker and modern revolutionary. Perhaps most important, he taught me and others to ‘stir the waters,’ and he set a standard of energy, commitment, and action for us to follow.”

Andres Pertierra wrote in The Nation, “Saul Landau changed my life.  I will never forget him.”

A powerful lesson of the Cold War is captured by the phrase “blowback.”  In Scripture, it is the message of ‘you reap what you sow’.

As Saul demonstrated time and again in his work, when you support coups, when you march your own soldiers into a test zone to watch a nuclear blast, these things have consequences, and can boomerang. And so he said we must act.

A few years ago, a dozen generals wrote President Obama and sounded just such a theme:

“The current policy of isolating Cuba has failed, patently, to achieve our ends …. When world leaders overwhelmingly cast their vote in the United Nations against the embargo and visit Havana to denounce American policy, it is time to change the policy, especially after fifty years of failure in attaining our goals.”

As Saul might have said, Cold Warrior, Cold Smorrior.

Read the rest of this entry »