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.”

The Clapps support a number of philanthropies and non-profits largely focused on helping the poor in Central and Latin America (including the Seattle International Foundation, also a financial supporter of Humanosphere). They are keenly aware of how difficult it can be for Americans to regain the trust of many Latin Americans given our government’s history of Cold War abuses in the southern hemisphere.

“We have this history of working to overthrow governments, of fixing elections, in Latin America that was all supposed to spread democracy,” said Clapp. “And history showed that didn’t work out too well … Yet here is USAID doing it again, carrying out some hidden political agenda. It’s just totally wrong.”

It’s wrong, he explained, not because he’s opposed to fostering freedom of speech and democratically oriented political dissent in Cuba. It’s wrong because it’s USAID, he said, an agency that is supposed to be focused on our nation’s efforts in global poverty reduction, economic development and disaster relief operations worldwide.

But Clapp seems to be somewhat on his own in expressing outrage, at least within the aid and development community. After he expressed dismay about this episode (first on the Facebook page of Global Washington, another organization he helped launch), Humanosphere did an informal and unscientific poll of many leaders in the humanitarian community. Nearly all declined to comment; some said it was no big deal.

That’s probably not how Alan Gross felt, a former USAID employee arrested in Cuba in 2009 on charges of web-based subversion. As these stories in The Guardian and Newsweek report,  Gross’ plight (and new hunger strike) stems from USAID’s continuing desire to mask ‘regime change’ projects as simple aid projects.

Raj Shah
Raj Shah

On Tuesday, USAID director Raj Shah (a former top program manager for the Gates Foundation) appeared before Congress to answer critical questions about the “Cuban Twitter” scheme and its potential adverse consequences.

“We’re already getting emails from USAID employees all over the world saying, ‘How could they do this and put us in danger?’ ” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt, and chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. As quoted in various news reports, Leahy told Shah that the operation was ‘dumb, dumb, dumb’ as well as ‘cockamamie.’

Shah pushed back against Leahy’s criticisms, saying the now-defunct Cuban Twitter project (actually known as ZunZuneo, and which was launched prior to him taking the helm at USAID) was not ‘covert’ but ‘discreet’ and that it falls within the agency’s mission of promoting democracy and human rights around the world – and as a means to fight poverty and inequity.

“Working to improve platforms of communication is a core part of what USAID works to do,” Shah said, as quoted by TIME magazine.

The agency also put online its rebuttal, Eight Facts About ZunZuneo, and other representatives of the Obama Administration defended it as a legitimate effort intended to promote freedom of expression and political diversity in Cuba. Shah noted that USAID conducts similar projects in other countries, though he declined to provide details.

The Cuban government has, since the AP revealed the existance of the USAID scheme, contended they are aware of a number of other social media schemes aimed at creating political dissent and opposition to the communist government. The possibility of Cuban officials releasing Gross seems even more remote now.

Despite the outrage expressed by Leahy and some in Congress about the USAID engaging in secret regime-change ops, the issue may already be dying down and losing what little public attention it has received so far.

“I have to say I’m surprised at how little reaction there’s been,” Clapp said. “I think this is going to make life more dangerous for USAID employees and perhaps also undermine aid efforts overseas more broadly.”

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

  • Sean

    We are all too scared to criticize them. Hell, they are probably reading our emails. God forbid we get shut out of the USAID gravy train.

  • Kathy Barker

    “Shah pushed back against Leahy’s criticisms, saying the now-defunct Cuban Twitter project (actually known as ZunZuneo, and which was launched prior to him taking the helm at USAID) was not ‘covert’ but ‘discreet’ and that it falls within the agency’s mission of promoting democracy and human rights around the world – and as a means to fight poverty and inequity.” There you have the position of USAID. False communications are within their mission, and there must be many more covert- excuse me, discreet- projects around. Way to go in helping to stop poverty and infectious disease. Shameful.