Democracy assistance with hands tied

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has been battered this week with news and accusations that it carried out a covert program to establish a Twitter-like service in Cuba.  The program ultimately failed, costing hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars and, allegedly, violated Cuban law.  

The cacophony of criticism, though, is misplaced.   Democracy assistance, even in closed societies like Cuba’s, has long been a centerpiece of the U.S. development agency’s programs, and often requires on-the-ground secrecy to avoid crackdown by the government.  

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The larger problem is the efficacy of these efforts.  In contrast to the cowboy bravado revealed in the memos of USAID and its contractors and the hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money invested in ZunZuneo (the name of the service), another branch of government, the White House, has launched of series of initiatives that have actually helped foster and sustain economic and individual autonomy through the expansion of travel and remittances.  

The executive actions, passed first in 2009 and later expanded with people-to-people travel in 2011, cost nothing.  By allowing Cuban Americans to travel and to send remittances more freely to the island and permitting U.S. cultural and academic visitors to travel to the island, the U.S. reforms have fueled the growth of a nascent private sector on the communist island.

Today, roughly half a million visitors, most of them Cuban American, travel to the island every year. The trips allow for greater communication, interaction, and sharing of ideas and technology—as one would expect.   As a result of recent changes in Cuban law that allow  Cubans to have cell phones, the travel back and forth has meant that today over 1 million people in Cuba have cell phones.

The best thing is that more, cost-free, executive actions can continue these changes that have already started.

In the last three years, the Cuban government initiated a series of economic reforms, allowing entrepreneurs to own and run their own businesses. While more modest than they should be, the changes were quickly embraced by a Cuban people hungry to take control of their own lives. Roughly 450,000 “cuentrapropistas,” as they’re known, have sprung up in sectors of the economy as restaurants, computer repair shops, taxis, art galleries, and beauty and hair salons.  Some who argue for turning back U.S. policy mock these as a feudal economy, but for these individuals struggling to survive in Cuba’s failed socialist economy, they represent real hope and change. 

As we have seen in our travels to the island and to Miami to visit Cuban-American relatives and shops in South Florida, the Obama administration reforms, as noted in a 2012 Brookings Institution report, have delivered “important sources of currency and commerce that are helping families cope with reduced subsidies and breathe life in the burgeoning private sector.”

Dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, at a conference in Miami last week, noted the transformative change this growing class of entrepreneurs represents.  While she rightly questioned the Cuban government’s commitment to the private sector, she called for even more help to these growing, independent entrepreneurs, because, as she said, “economic autonomy is political autonomy.”   It was a message she echoed beautifully in her blog, where she also described how--by providing services and goods separate from the state—the cuentapropistas are also providing independence for consumers from the government.   

This is not a modern economy.  But nor is it a feudal economy or something imposed from the outside on unwitting users.  It’s the makings of real change--the result of the irrepressible, creative efforts of the Cuban people. 

Democracy assistance efforts by USAID and other nongovernmental institutions are an important part of U.S. foreign policy and moral leadership in the world.  Human rights activists who have struggled against apartheid in South Africa, against General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and under totalitarian communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe will testify to this.   In all those cases, as well, secrecy was necessary to avoid government repression.  And many of those efforts violated local laws; but those laws were judged—rightly—to violate higher norms of popular sovereignty. 

But in none of those cases were the countries under a sanctions regime as suffocating and isolating as the one the U.S.—by law—has on Cuba.  Nor in any of those countries was democracy assistance tied—as it is now under the Helms-Burton law—to an embargo and regime change.  That relationship has instrumentalized democracy assistance, forcing a specific, narrow policy agenda onto a broader development program.  USAID and unfortunately jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross (now on a hunger strike) have paid the price.

It’s time to break free of the failures of a half-century-old embargo that has failed in its primary objective of forcing surrender and political change in Cuba.  Change is coming to Cuba, and it’s coming from within.  While assistance to brave human rights activists will always remain important, the administration can continue to break down the isolation and dependence of Cuban entrepreneurs and people through executive action that will allow for greater interaction with the outside world, including through U.S. travel and limited commerce.  Now that would be a good use of taxpayer money—except it’s free.

Sabatini is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. Tummino is the editor of Americas Quarterly and director of policy for the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.