A new investigation by the Associated Press into a project of the United States government-funded US Agency for International Development (USAID) project to create a Twitter-style social media network in Cuba has received a lot of attention.
The news was trending on the actual Twitter for much of the day on April 7 when the story broke, and elicited comment from various members of Congress and other policy makers.
The “ZunZuneo” project, which AP reports was “aimed at undermining Cuba's communist government”, was overseen by USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI). AP describes OTI as “a division that was created after the fall of the Soviet Union to promote U.S. interests in quickly changing political environments ― without the usual red tape”.
Its efforts to undermine the Cuban government are not unusual, however, considering the group’s track record in other countries in the region.
Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, told radio station KPFA on April 7 that USAID and OTI in particular have engaged in various efforts to undermine the democratically-elected governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Haiti, among others.
Declassified US government documents show that USAID’s OTI in Venezuela played a central role in funding and working with opposition groups after the short-lived 2002 coup d’etat against Hugo Chavez. A key contractor for USAID/OTI in that effort has been Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI).
More recent US State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks reveal that USAID/OTI subversion in Venezuela extended into the Obama administration era (until 2010, when funding for OTI in Venezuela appears to have ended). DAI continued to play an important role.
A State Department cable from November 2006 explains the US embassy’s strategy in Venezuela and how USAID/OTI “activities support [the] strategy”: “In August of 2004, Ambassador outlined the country team's 5 point strategy to guide embassy activities in Venezuela for the period 2004 ) 2006 (specifically, from the referendum to the 2006 presidential elections).
“The strategy's focus is: 1) Strengthening Democratic Institutions, 2) Penetrating Chavez' Political Base, 3) Dividing Chavismo, 4) Protecting Vital US business, and 5) Isolating Chavez internationally.”
Among the ways in which USAID/OTI have supported the strategy is through funding and training protest groups. An August 2009 cable cites the head of USAID/OTI contractor DAI’s Venezuela office, Eduardo Fernandez, as saying, during 2009 protests, that all the protest organisers are DAI grantees.
The cable reported: “Fernandez told DCM Caulfield that he believed the [Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigations Corps'] dual objective is to obtain information regarding DAI's grantees and to cut off their funding. Fernandez said that 'the streets are hot,' referring to growing protests against Chavez's efforts to consolidate power, and 'all these people (organizing the protests) are our grantees.'
“Fernandez has been leading non-partisan training and grant programs since 2004 for DAI in Venezuela.”
The November 2006 cable describes an example of USAID/OTI partners in Venezuela shutting down a city. It said: “This project supported an NGO working with women in the informal sectors of Barquisimeto, the 5th largest city in Venezuela. The training helped them negotiate with city government to provide better working conditions.
“After initially agreeing to the women's conditions, the city government reneged and the women shut down the city for 2 days forcing the mayor to return to the bargaining table. This project is now being replicated in another area of Venezuela.”
The implications for the situation in Venezuela now are obvious, unless we are to assume that such activities have ended despite the tens of millions of dollars in USAID funds designated for Venezuela.
Some of these funds are to go through groups such as Freedom House, and the International Republican Institute, some of which also funded groups involved in the 2002 coup, which prominent IRI staff publicly applauded at the time.
The November 2006 cable notes that one OTI program goal is to bolster international support for the opposition: “DAI has brought dozens of international leaders to Venezuela, university professors, NGO members, and political leaders to participate in workshops and seminars, who then return to their countries with a better understanding of the Venezuelan reality and as stronger advocates for the Venezuelan opposition.”
Of the thousands of cables originating from the US embassy in Caracas made available by WikiLeaks, many describe regular communication and coordination with prominent opposition leaders and groups. One particular favourite has been the NGO Sumate and its leader Maria Corina Machado, who has made headlines over the past two months for her role in the protest movement.
The cables show that Machado historically has taken more extreme positions than some other opposition leaders. The embassy has at least privately questioned Sumate’s strategy of discrediting Venezuela’s electoral system, which in turn has contributed to opposition defeats at the polls, most notably in 2005 when an opposition boycott led to complete Chavista domination of the National Assembly.
The current protests are no different; Machado and Leopoldo Lopez launched “La Salida” (“The Exit”) campaign at the end of January with its stated goal of forcing President Nicolas Maduro from office. They vowed to “create chaos in the streets”.
USAID support for destabilisation is no secret to the targeted governments. In September 2008, in the midst of a violent and racist campaign against the democratically-elected government of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Morales expelled the US Ambassador and Venezuela followed suit “in solidarity.”
Bolivia later ended all USAID involvement in Bolivia after the agency refused to disclose whom it was funding in the country. Freedom of Information Act requests had been independently filed but were not answered.
The US embassy in Bolivia had previously been caught asking Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars in the country to engage in espionage.
Commenting on the failed USAID/OTI ZunZuneo program in Cuba, Republican House Oversight and Government Reform Chairperson Jason Chaffetz said: “That is not what USAID should be doing. USAID is flying the American flag and should be recognised around the globe as an honest broker of doing good.
“If they start participating in covert, subversive activities, the credibility of the United States is diminished.”
But USAID’s track record of engaging in subversive activities is a long one, and US credibility as an “honest broker” was lost many years ago.