U.S.-Cuba: Must “Democracy Promotion” Obstruct Normalization?*

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: Martin Burns / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Martin Burns / Flickr / Creative Commons

“Democracy promotion” has been one of the most contentious aspects of U.S. policy toward Cuba – and one of the most counterproductive – but it doesn’t have to be either.  The concept of democracy promotion is ingrained in U.S. policy culture, and the bureaucracies and programs they’ve been charged with conducting over the years are as bullet-proof as any in Washington.  Democracy promotion in different forms has been a main element of U.S. policy toward Cuba for decades. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. Interests Section conducted an array of outreach programs, engaging with Cuban academics, journalists, and officials – people tolerant if not deeply supportive of the Cuban government – as well as human rights activists and others “outside the system.”  These activities informed and nurtured the aspirations of Cubans in and outside the system who were eager to find Cuban solutions to their country’s mounting problems.  The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 moved democracy promotion into a more aggressive mode, explicitly linking it to regime change.  President Clinton spent token amounts on initiatives related to Cuba’s future transition, but the Bush Administration launched an expansion that has since cost U.S. taxpayers more than $250 million.  The arrest, conviction, and five-year imprisonment of USAID sub-contractor Alan Gross shed light on one such operation.  He smuggled sophisticated communication equipment onto the island to set up secret networks.  Associated Press investigative reporter Desmond Butler uncovered other programs involving communications and political operations against the Cuban government.

The investment has yielded some operational successes, but the impact toward promoting democracy has been negligible and, in important ways, counterproductive.  The program has delivered food, medicines, and other support to the families of imprisoned dissidents (many of whom have been released since Presidents Obama and Castro announced reestablishment of relations last December), but more provocative operations have arguably led only to arrests.  The amateurish clandestine tradecraft of the contractors and program activists, moreover, made it easy for Cuban counterintelligence to penetrate and manipulate their ranks.  The “private libraries” that U.S. taxpayers have paid for do not exist, and communications systems involving expensive satellite gear and satellite access fees have been compromised.  The secretive modus operandi of the operations has given credibility to draconian Cuban government measures, like Law 88 for “Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy,” imposing prison terms for certain contact with foreigners “aimed at subverting the internal order of the nation and destroying its political, economic, and social system.”  Authentic people-to-people exchanges have been tainted as Cubans in the government and on the street are wary that any contact could be part of Washington’s regime-change efforts.

The democracy promotion ideology and bureaucracy seem unstoppable, but Presidents Obama and Castro can take the edge off this irritant with a little effort and flexibility, and even make it mutually beneficial.  The State Department and USAID have pledged to continue the Cuba democracy promotion programs and are asking Congress for $20 million to fund them again this year, but the President’s statement that “it is time for us to try something new” suggests acknowledgment that they need not be so ineffective and counterproductive.  For starters, the Administration could stop citing Helms-Burton authorities, which are explicitly for regime change, and establish criteria for operations in Cuba similar to those in other countries with whom the U.S. has diplomatic relations and is trying to improve bilateral ties.  It could restore and expand what worked in the past, such as the distribution of books and clippings; support for exchange visits; promotion of academic and cultural events; and other non-political activities that include people with government affiliation.  Perhaps most importantly, to decontaminate the programs, the organizations that have already spent millions trying to drive regime change should step aside and let a new generation – based on real people-to-people interests – try something different with the funds.  Both Presidents can trust their citizens to develop the historic roadmap that will define the relationship into the future.  Both the United States and Cuba stand to benefit.

September 25, 2015

*This article is excerpted from the second in a series of policy briefs from the CLALS Cuba Initiative, supported by the Christopher Reynolds Foundation. To read the full brief, please click here.