U.S. lawmakers this week came out in support of the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) social media program in Cuba as one of the only methods for promoting free expression in the communist country.
A recent report by the Associated Press revealed that USAID funded a “Cuban Twitter” program to help citizens communicate. The program known as ZunZuneo—slang for the sound a Cuban hummingbird makes—attracted as many as 68,000 users in two years before running out of funding in 2012.
USAID administrator Rajiv Shah faced sharp criticism over the program at congressional hearings this week. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, called it “cockamamie” and said lawmakers were not adequately briefed on the details and risks of the program.
However, other lawmakers noted that Cubans have no alternative outlet for expressing themselves outside of government control.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) tweeted during a hearing with Shah on Thursday to demonstrate the lack of free expression for Cubans.
“In fact, I’m going to send out a tweet right now,” he said. “If I sent this tweet in Cuba, I would be put in jail. And I’m going to send it right now as an example of what people in Cuba cannot do.”
Rubio’s tweet called Cuban President Raul Castro “a human rights violator and a tyrant” for denying Internet access to his citizens.
Cuba “has the most restrictive laws on free speech and press freedom in the Americas,” according to the pro-democracy group Freedom House. Castro and his daughter actively use Twitter accounts despite the ban for citizens.
The Associated Press reported that the program used front companies and offshore bank accounts to spread mass text messages among Cubans, some overtly political. USAID subsequently disputed the reporting and said the network was designed only to help Cubans break the “information blockade” in the country.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, responded to criticism that the clandestine program should have been run by an intelligence agency. Cuban users were not aware that the text messages were funded by a U.S. agency.
“It is common sense that we shouldn’t ask the government of Iran or Egypt or China for permission to support advocates of free speech, human rights, or political pluralism or to provide uncensored access to the Internet or social media,” he said.
“At the end of the day, just giving people the opportunity to communicate with the outside world and with each other is, in my mind, a fundamental responsibility of any democracy program.”
Paul Bonicelli, former USAID assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean in the George W. Bush administration, also said in an interview that the Cuban text messaging program was not perfect but among “the kinds of things USAID needs to do.”
However, increased skepticism of USAID could lead to less funding for similar programs in the future. Menendez noted at the hearing on Thursday that the State Department’s budget request already includes millions less for Latin America compared to previous years.
USAID, which spends millions annually along with the State Department to promote Internet freedom and free speech, also faces increasingly harsh environments abroad. Authoritarian governments often accuse USAID of stirring unrest among dissidents. The agency has either been expelled or forced to withdraw its missions from Russia, Bolivia, and Ecuador in recent months.
Bonicelli said aid agencies have an important role to play in democracy promotion.
“I don’t think the CIA would take this up,” he said. “It’s going to be the critical USAID and State Department missions to increase the amount of information people get and help them disseminate that information.”
“Development is not just about mosquito nets and digging wells for people,” he added. “It’s helping them be free, democratic, and prosperous.”
A Democratic Senate aide said U.S. agencies should seek more transparent methods of promoting democracy.
"We should do what we can to support democracy and political freedom with people-to-people programs that involve going in the front door, not secretly through a tunnel in the basement,” the aide said. “Such opportunities are not risk free but they increasingly exist in Cuba."
USAID critics also say the programs put people in harm’s way, such as contractor Alan Gross. Gross received a 15-year prison sentence in 2011 for transporting equipment that provided Cuba’s small Jewish community with illegal Internet access. The social media program began after Gross’ arrest, a revelation that reportedly prompted him to go on hunger strike to secure his release.
While the programs could be improved, Bonicelli said U.S. officials must recognize that America has allies beyond countries that are already democratic.
“In countries that are closed there are also people who love democracy,” he said. “They want to be free. They’re looking to us for inspiration and support.”
“They are our allies too. We ought to support them.”