04.08.14

USAID chief defends 'Cuban Twitter' on Capitol Hill

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah made the trip to Capitol Hill Tuesday to defend President Barack Obama’s budget request for foreign aid spending in fiscal 2015.

Significant portions of both the House and Senate Appropriation Committee hearings focused on last week’s revelation that USAID sought to build a “Cuban Twitter” platform, supposedly to provide Cubans with greater access to lifestyle information, but which some – including the Associated Press reporters who broke the story - allege was designed to foment unrest and facilitate the overthrow of the communist Castro regime.

Despite the focus on Cuba (and despite our own suggestion yesterday that Congress ask the question), neither hearing revealed how USAID and its contractor for the program, Creative Associates International, ascertained half a million Cuban phone numbers, which they used to launch the ill-fated Twitter-style messaging platform.

The project has raised tough questions about what USAID’s role should be in promoting democratic societies, whether the agency engages in “covert” or “discreet” operations, and whether that distinction should matter.

Rep. Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, made her own assessment quite clear.

"For the life of me, I don't understand how you're not seeing this as covert," she told the USAID chief.

Lawmakers were eager to discuss what steps the agency takes – and should take - to better protect its own contractors and subcontractors from arrest and imprisonment given that the programs they work on might require them to break laws in the places where they work.

House and Senate members expressed particular concern Tuesday over the plight of former USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who is currently serving a prison sentence in Cuba after he was arrested for distributing Internet access hardware as part of a USAID program. Gross reportedly began a hunger strike April 3 to protest his treatment by both the Cuban and U.S. governments.

Shah repeatedly expressed his personal concern for Gross and assured Congress the administration was taking “specific” steps to expedite Gross’ release, though he was unable to disclose what those steps entail. The USAID chief was also quick to point out that contractors and subcontractors frequently place themselves at odds with foreign laws.

Shah drew a direct comparison between “discreet” operations in Cuba to increase access to information and efforts USAID currently funds in Uganda to provide antiretroviral treatments to homosexual patients, despite that country’s recent passage of a law criminalizing same-sex relationships, a law which USAID’s implementing partners would be violating.

Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, raised pointed concerns over whether USAID informs its contractors and subcontractors they could be imprisoned for carrying out the obligations of their contracts with the agency. Shah responded that USAID “clearly communicates the context” and “highlights the risks” of working in repressive or hostile places, though he also noted the administration should have done more to inform Gross of the risks he was facing.

Gross was arrested in 2009, just before the Zunzuneo, or “Cuban Twitter” program, began, and prior to Shah’s appointment to USAID.

Lowey concluded her questions for Shah by noting that she did not “think we’ve resolved the challenges we have before us” with respect to the Zunzuneo program. Lowey’s statement could suggest Congress will launch a more formal investigation into that particular program, though no details of such an investigation or follow-up hearing have been so far been publicly released.

Not all lawmakers shared Lowey and Lee’s concerns. Among those with slightly different views were Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Rep. Wasserman-Schultz, both of whom represent districts in Florida, home to the vast majority of Cuban-Americans.

Diaz-Balart told Shah he was “shocked by this story” and reiterated USAID’s argument that the program was public all along while also suggesting the reason Zunzuneo failed was that it became too large and “too successful.”

Wasserman-Schultz echoed her Republican colleague’s support for programs similar to the “Cuban Twitter” project, telling Shah, “Cuba is not a partisan issue,” and that while she does not “want to endorse regime change here in this subcommittee,” the U.S. government has an obligation to carry out programs that promote human rights for people in repressive societies.

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