Eyes Wide Shut, USAID, State Double Down on Cuba Programs


The phrase “exercise in futility” can easily be applied to to the United States' half-century old embargo of Cuba.  But lately there is an even more disconcerting trend among U.S. policymakers, which can best be described as conducting our fruitless policy toward Cuba with “eyes wide shut.”


How else to describe the recent comments from senior USAID and State Department officials in response to a blistering - and vital - critique of U.S. taxpayer-funded democracy programming in Cuba, which was published in The Miami Herald by Fulton Armstrong, a former senior staff member to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry?  USAID's Mark Feierstein and State's Michael Posner responded to the criticism, which they have the right and responsibility to do, but their response is another disappointing indication that this administration remains inexplicably committed to a policy of willful ignorance when it comes to Cuba.  (The president himself has made comments in the past year - decrying Cuba's lack of movement on political prisoners and on the economy -  which made him sound as if he hasn't been briefed on the subject since taking office.)


In their letter to The Miami Herald, Feierstein and Posner argue that USAID's Cuba program is "comparable" to other democracy programs in the world. They neglect to mention that, unlike other USAID programs, the Cuba program is authorized under what amounts to a regime change mandate (see the Helms-Burton Act, sections 205 and 109), which is likely why, unlike in other less-than-chummy host countries that seem to tolerate U.S. democracy programming, USAID has no office on the ground and no cooperation agreement with the host government.


Feierstein and Posner also neglect to mention that it was this very regime change mandate - which underpins USAID's Cuba program and under which Alan Gross traveled at least 5 times to Cuba - that helped land the Maryland subcontractor in a Cuban jail cell more than two years ago, and not, as they argue, because he was “helping Cubans access the Internet.” It may be true that the Cuban government wants to limit most or certain Cubans' access to the internet, and it may even be true that this was the real reason why Mr. Gross was arrested. But denouncing Cuba's motivations doesn't help free Mr. Gross.


Helping Alan Gross to understand Cuban law before he traveled to the island would have better served him. Instead, Feierstein and Posner disingenuously suggest that we can choose not to accept Cuban law. In what other foreign country may a private American citizen flout local national security laws and expect to go free because the United States government thinks it's an unfair law? Surely Feierstein and Posner can't be unaware of this advise offered to any traveler on the State Department website: “While in a foreign country, you are subject to its laws.” Or, of the warning USAID gave to grant applicants in 2008 that Cuba might harshly sanction Cubans or foreigners carrying out activities under Section 109 of the Helms-Burton Act.


It's one thing for U.S. officials, surrounded by unsatisfiable critics on all sides, to quietly grumble about a former colleague's tough and public critique of a program that doesn't work but can't be dumped.  But it's intellectually dishonest – and diplomatically counterproductive to achieving Gross's release – to come strutting out with a defense that so willfully denies reality. 


Whom does the administration aim to please with this intentional blindness?  It's fair to say that its travel reforms were clearly targeted to win over swing Cuban American voters.  But it's also clear that those few Cuban Americans for whom maintaining the regime change orientation of the USAID program is crucially important would never vote for this president.  That leaves House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Senator Bob Menendez and other influential hard line Cuban American legislators who simply won't rest, and who can create headaches for the president in other, more important areas.  Already, the administration's Cuba critics have held up key State Department nominations, and came close to undoing the president's travel reforms last month - and that's just in Latin American affairs.  For the administration, there are other priorities around the world to protect and pursue, and Cuba hard liners care about nothing so much as Cuba policy.  With its critics fighting the long war to keep the embargo intact, the administration is playing a dangerous game, backing itself further and further into a corner from which there's no escape.