3 USAID Fiascos

The Three USAID Cuba Technology Fiascos of 2014:  ZunZuneo, Alan Gross, Subversive HipHop

Two of these matters were first noted in the original project report:

The “US secretly created ‘Cuban Twitter’ to stir unrest” story that the Associated Press broke in April 2014 becomes more bizarre the more details are revealed, involving front companies and Cayman Island bank accounts, using $1.6 million of USAID money publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan and stolen Cuban cell-phone numbers, to create a social media platform, ZunZuneo, as a covert program designed, in the report’s language, “to undermine” the Cuban government.

Official US government and major news sources had claimed Alan Gross’s innocence in the face of his arrest for bringing in a laptop to help the small Jewish community in Havana develop communications resources. The $3.2 million settlement Alan Gross received less than a week after his release “avoids the cost, delay and risks of further proceedings, and does not constitute an admission of liability by either party,” the USAID statement said, suggesting there was something more going on than what the New York Times and government sources referred to earlier, Gross’s denial of working for any intelligence agency and White House press secretary Jay Carney’s claim “Mr. Gross is a 64-year-old husband, father, and dedicated professional with a long history of providing aid to underserved communities in more than 50 countries.”

The end-of-the-year analysis expands upon both these cases (pp. 17-21), including ways in which leadership of the nonprofit Roots of Hope was involved with ZunZuneo and US-based technology corporations with related regime change programs (pp. 21ff).

The Alan Gross case is especially important given that his release was part of the “prisoner exchange” with the remaining members of The Cuban 5 at the end of 2014, the final hurdle needing to be cleared for the December 17th Obama-Castro normalization announcement to be made. “A Cuban Spring? The Use of the Internet as a Tool of Democracy Promotion by United States Agency for International Development in Cuba” by Pamina Firchow, Assistant Professor of the Practice of Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, published at the end of 2013 in Information Technology for Development, is an especially thoughtful analysis of the Alan Gross situation and USAID’s appropriate role.  For a similarly-timed prescient analysis, see Lana Wylie and Lisa Glidden, “The ‘Cuban Spring’ Fallacy: The Current Incarnation of a Persistent Narrative,” in The International Journal of Cuban Studies, Summer 2013, available on jstor.org as linked.*

The Alan Gross story continues to unfold in curious and informative ways. Like the Cuban American community in South Florida, the right wing is split, with a growing portion opposing the embargo and trade and travel restrictions, believing with President Obama and so many others, that the embargo has been ineffective. Alan Gross is becoming a major spokesman for this contingency with his strong condemnation of the embargo — see the Politco story that preceded Obama’s visit to Cuba.

Less well-known than ZunZuneo and Alan Gross but of the same cloth was the USAID project revealed the week of the normalization announcements — funding for Hip-Hop musicians in Havana to foster anti-governmental rebellion. Another big AP story, “US co-opted Cuba’s hip-hop scene to spark change,” it began “For more than two years, a U.S. agency secretly infiltrated Cuba’s underground hip-hop movement, recruiting unwitting rappers to spark a youth movement against the government, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press,” including contracts, emails, preserved chats, budgets, expense reports, power points, and photographs involving Creative Associates International, a Washington, D.C., contractor, run by Serbian contractor Rajko Bozic, who used a Panama front company and a bank in Lichtenstein to hide the money trail to fund Los Aldeanos, a hip-hop group “widely respected by Cuban youth for its hard-hitting lyrics” for a TV program that would be distributed on DVDs to circumvent Cuba’s censors. Characterizing the effort as “amateurish and profoundly unsuccessful,” the report notes its discovery by the Cuban government and its counter-productive “compromising [of] Cuba’s vibrant hip-hop culture.” The report was quoted and the project criticized and ridiculed across a wide range of news outlets including Billboard, NPR and PBS, The Atlantic, The International Business Times, The Guardian, Latino.FoxNews, The North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), and Granma, the official Cuban government newspaper.

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*  jstor.org is a major college and university library service whose members received free access to more than 2,300 academic journals and that appears to offer its access to unaffiliated individuals only at substantial fees (note the $20 download fee here); limited free access is available to any individual, at http://about.jstor.org/rr.

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