When Thinkers Collide: USAID Offers Cuba Grant to NAF

This weekend, I was gearing up to blog about why a Chavez defeat in Venezuela may not have spelled complete and immediate disaster in Cuba. I was percolating up some pretty plausible arguments. But, with Chavez’s win, Cubans at least have been spared that conversation, for now.

I might have been left without anything interesting at all to write about, were it not for the investigative reporting of veteran Cuba reporter and blogger, Tracey Eaton, who through his Cuba Money Project has done some of the finest grain investigating into USAID’s controversial Cuba programs that anyone has undertaken. Tracey learned of a big new USAID grant to the New America Foundation, which as readers well know, is home to the US-Cuba Policy Initiative founded by Steve Clemons and led by yours truly.

The grant, which Tracey notes is the second one awarded to NAF’s fast-growing, fast-moving Open Technology Institute, is a big one: $4.3 million. I wasn’t surprised to hear of another grant, though I wasn’t aware of it, having known that OTI had received previous U.S. government support. But I was certainly surprised to learn this one was awarded under USAID’s Cuba program. As I told Tracey, I’m not involved in any USAID grants – and I frankly don’t want to be. I think I’m pretty clearly on record in my belief that USAID’s programs in Cuba have largely failed in their objectives and are in fact often counterproductive to anyone associated with them.

What does it say about an institution that might house two such initiatives: one that argues against U.S. government intervention in Cuba, and one that would consider aiding such interventions? I’ve given this question a good deal of thought in the past twenty-four hours. First, one of the defining attributes about an institution like New America that considers itself an investor in innovators is the space it has tried to cultivate for a multitude of interests and perspectives. The emphasis is on “new thinking” – yes, U.S.-Cuba policy sure could use some. Sometimes that means we thinkers bump into each other. Sometimes, it’s a recipe for downright discordance. More than once I’ve found myself in disagreement, as I do now with my OTI colleagues if they do choose to partner with USAID’s Cuba program in the next several years.

OTI is undeniably an innovator in digital democracy as folks like to call it. I must admit to having kept my distance on the subject in part because it’s not my area of expertise, and in part because I find myself so conflicted: on the one hand, I believe the internet and other modes of mass communication should not be kept from the public, and that no extenuating circumstance can justify any nation withholding such tools from its citizens. On the other hand, I’m not sure that foreign government intervention is the best way to address this problem. And I’m certainly on the record that in the case of Cuba and efforts by its nemesis/scapegoat to the north to “free” the Cuban people, the U.S. government is exactly the worst way to deliver any such freedoms. In fact, U.S. government democracy-building efforts on the island have only given the Cuban government an excuse to work to delegitimize anyone associated with them as paid ‘mercenaries’.

It seems to me that no matter how  cutting edge or morally gratifying spreading the tools of internet freedom may be in this day and age, it’s a grievous mistake to dismiss the broader foreign policy context and implications in any target country, however passé that might seem. We do still live in an international system, where sovereign countries, whether we like their leaders or not, may have a thing or two to say about foreign agents intervening in domestic affairs. That’s not an apology for any regime; that’s reality. And those who fail to recognize that reality are often in for quite a shock when they run up against it in country. Even though USAID subcontractor Alan Gross called his own adventures in digital democracy as “very risky business in no uncertain terms” in his trip reports, surely he didn’t imagine he could end up in a Cuban jail cell for the past three years. Gross has paid a tremendous price for wandering into the neverending U.S.-Cuban conflict, as have many Cuban dissidents accused by the Cuban government of colluding with a hostile foreign power.

All of that said, I don’t yet know the details of the grant offer in question. Perhaps they have some fresh approach to the issue, as Tracey wondered. But, given USAID’s tone deafness over the last few years, I’m afraid I may already know the answer to that question.

The leadership of the New America Foundation has asked for my advice, perspective and guidance as they think this through from the perspective of the organization as a whole. As readers of this blog know well, this is an incredibly thorny issue and it deserves a full discussion, one in which I fully intend to participate.