Rarely is a government program shut down because it is too successful. Yet that is essentially what happened to a U.S. initiative to create a Cuban version of Twitter.
From 2009 to 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development funded and developed — through contractors, front companies and offshore accounts — a mobile-phone text-messaging service for sharing news and exchanging opinions that attracted more than 40,000 Cubans, according to the Associated Press. As the service gained popularity, however, U.S. officials realized that the only way to keep its Yanqui origins under wraps was to spin it off as an independent company, an effort that failed when they could find no way to generate sufficient revenue or recruit new private management.
Some commentators are spinning this as yet another cautionary tale of a U.S. covert operation run amok. The program undermined USAID’s integrity, they say, and reinforced the reputation of the U.S. government as a surveillance-mad rogue operator. It also showed that, when it comes to Cuba, the U.S. still has a Cold War mentality.
These points may be good enough for Twitter, but they don’t withstand more thorough scrutiny. First, this was not some kind of super-spooky deal. Not many “covert operations” get reviewed by the Government Accountability Office: As it noted last year, the U.S. government’s efforts to promote democracy in Cuba “have included a greater focus on information technology, particularly on supporting independent bloggers and developing social networking platforms.” The GAO found nothing unlawful about the program.
Promoting democracy and human rights is squarely in USAID’s bailiwick — it’s right there on its website, on a page titled “Democracy, Human Rights and Governance Strategy.” The idea that USAID is some kind of vestal virgin dispensing surplus wheat and well pumps ignores the “U.S.” before the AID.
None of this is to say that humanitarian aid programs should be used as a cover for intelligence programs. What the Central Intelligence Agency did in Pakistan — use a vaccination program to try to locate Osama bin Laden — was outrageous and wrong. But USAID’s democracy assistance programs are designed to strengthen the ability of citizens to peacefully resist and undermine authoritarian and abusive governments. In Cuba — which has an aggressive intelligence service that actually had an agent within USAID — a certain amount of subterfuge is necessary for those programs to be effective and to protect their intended beneficiaries.
The biggest weakness of USAID’s Cuba program was that the agency wasn’t prepared for its success. When the messaging platform began growing beyond easy control, the agency’s concerns about disclosure and cost led to its shutdown. Maybe the agency should have put some of those government lawyers to work creating a less ad hoc structure that would have provided stable financial support while maintaining a more formal arms- length separation from the U.S. government.
Yes, the Cold War is over, and the end of the Cuba embargo is long overdue. But the Cubans are not gentle socialists. And there is a kind of Cold War 2.0 — between democratic nations and a growing cadre of repressive states — that stretches from Russia to Egypt and onward to Latin America. These countries will use any digital means necessary to stifle free expression. USAID’s so-called “Cuban Twitter” plan was by no means perfect, but arguing that such programs are unnecessary is the equivalent of bringing pen and paper to a flame war.