Humanitarian community weirdly silent on USAID “Cuba Twitter” fiasco | 

Students in Cuba gather behind a business looking for a Internet signal for their smart phones in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
Students in Cuba gather behind a business looking for a Internet signal for their smart phones in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

If lack of public outrage is any indication, many in the humanitarian field appear to be just fine with the recent revelation that the U.S. government’s lead anti-poverty agency has been spending tax dollars to operate a secret project aimed at fomenting political unrest in Cuba.

You may remember when news leaked out in 2011 that the CIA had faked a vaccination program in Pakistan in its effort to find Osama Bin Laden.

It took a while for the humanitarian community to respond, and condemn, that scheme. But most did and the dire predictions that the CIA ruse would endanger aid workers (and undermine the crucial polio campaign in Pakistan) turned out to be tragically accurate. As Laurie Garrett recently wrote in Foreign Policy, the CIA scheme gave militant extremists all the justification they needed for targeting polio vaccine workers and the murders go on today – and polio continues to spread.

Now, thanks to an AP investigation, we learn that USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development) has since 2009 been running a secret social media scheme in Cuba aimed at using cell-phone text messages to foster political dissent against the communist government. The AP reported that the project, dubbed “Cuban Twitter” involved creating secret shell companies and foreign bank accounts.

Bill and Paula Clapp
Bill and Paula Clapp
Seattle International Foundation

“So we’re back to the days of USAID acting like the CIA?” said an exasperated Bill Clapp, a Seattle-based philanthropist who with his wife Paula has been working for decades on a variety of anti-poverty and empowerment projects throughout Latin America. “If our goal is to promote open societies around the world, I’m not sure having our lead aid agency running covert foreign policy operations is the way to do it.” Continue reading

Revealed: USAID’s Twitter-like attempt to foment unrest in Cuba | 

Students in Cuba gather behind a business looking for a Internet signal for their smart phones in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
Students in Cuba gather behind a business looking for a Internet signal for their smart phones in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

A report by the AP today reveals that a US-backed program attempted to develop a Twitter-like service with the goal that it would help spark political unrest in Cuba.

Most surprising is that it was backed by the humanitarian arm of the US government, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). By channeling funds through offshore accounts and working with US and Spain-based contractors, USAID helped to establish ZunZuneo (a slang term for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet). At its peak, the text-message based application had more than 40,000 users.

There are already concerns that the revelation will cause harm to US foreign policy and future US humanitarian work.

ZunZuneo was built on the back of the state-owned mobile phone company Cubacel. The contract between USAID and Creative Associates International, was to build a system where people could connection on issues related to news, sports and entertainment. Data was to be collected about the users so that more political messaging could be shared, at the direction of USAID.

Taking a page out of Iran and other places where social media aided civil unrest, the hope was ZunZuneo would lead to “smart mobs” and other actions that may “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society,” as a USAID document obtained by the AP, states.

Continue reading

Alan Gross update: Mixing foreign aid with foreign policy. | 

Flickr, johanoomen

Is it foreign aid or covert aid?

Remember when the CIA did that fake vaccination scheme in Pakistan, the one that many predicted (correctly) would undermine confidence in American health assistance and other aid programs?

Well, there’s another ongoing saga that illustrates the cost of mixing up foreign aid with foreign policy, especially when we use covert means to achieve foreign policy goals. You will be forgiven if you have so far missed this story, given the boring headlines this week:

USAID contractor case renews debate on tactics

USAID contractor work detailed

American’s arrest in Cuba could have impact

Aid agency official knew he was ‘taking risks,’ report shows

Basically, here’s the story: Alan Gross, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, was charged in 2009 with espionage or some such by the Cuban government and sentenced to 15 years in jail. I’m not sure why the squeamishness in the recent headlines, but it deserves attention.

This ongoing saga is important to Gross and his family, of course, but also because of the implications it could have for the ongoing discussion within the federal government about “re-inventing foreign aid.”

The Associated Press has published a great analysis of newly released reports of Gross’ activities in Cuba aimed at ‘democracy promotion’ among the island nation’s small Jewish community. That sounds pretty tame, until you read up on the details which include smuggling into the country electronic communications equipment aimed at circumventing Cuba’s control of web traffic.

This included Gross smuggling into Cuba a specialized kind of satellite telephone (SIM) card that is not available to the public and, according to the AP, is “provided most frequently to the Defense Department and the CIA.”

The AP: U.S. officials say he did nothing wrong and was just carrying out the normal mission of USAID.

Huh? This is the normal mission of USAID?

This is certainly normal for the CIA, or those other branches of government legitimately set up to undermine authoritarian regimes around the world. I’m all for undermining authoritarian regimes.

But is it wise, and in our long-term interest, to be enlisting USAID in this cause as well?

Should the agency that was set up primarily to bring food to the starving, medical supplies to the injured or otherwise engage in America’s humanitarian causes overseas also be doing covert political work against hostile foreign governments?

Is there a need to more clearly delineate foreign aid from foreign policy?

I’m just asking.