ADAMS: Democracy can’t be retweeted

Don’t get me wrong; I love Twitter as much as the next person. I also think democracy is pretty great, for all of the complaining we do about it. I, like most everyone else, hope that someday soon Cubans will have a functioning democracy and access to Twitter. But the United States Agency for International Development’s attempt to promote subversion in Cuba by pushing a Twitter-like social media platform into the country does nothing to advance democratic values. This program only serves to provide old school Cuban government officials and other critics of the United States with the ammunition they need to strengthen their anti-American rhetoric and delegitimize Cuban-born opposition movements.

Last Thursday, the Associated Press announced that USAID — a federal agency mostly recognized for its humanitarian work — had been funding a texting service modeled after Twitter in Cuba. Created in 2010 with the intention of subverting the Cuban government, the Twitter-esque platform had drawn over 40,000 users. The program, named ZunZuneo, is now defunct.

Prior to this discovery, there was reason to believe that relations between the United States and Cuba were improving. The Cuban government had taken steps, albeit slowly, towards economic liberalization, while the Obama administration eased certain travel restrictions and parts of the embargo. Raul Castro and Barack Obama even shook hands in December 2013, a far cry from the tense relationships that defined Bush’s tenure.

But the historic adversaries still have much to disagree about, including Cuba’s detainment of USAID officer Alan Gross. In 2009, a Cuban court found Gross guilty of participating in a “subversive project … aimed to destroy the (Cuban) revolution.” While the evidence substantiating these claims against Gross is contested, recent revelations about USAID’s “Cuban Twitter” will surely undermine US attempts to have him released.

The creation of ZunZuneo substantiates claims about the United States’ meddling in Cuba’s internal affairs, of which Gross is just one example, and paints opposition actors as U.S. puppets. It gives credence to old school Cuban officials, who oppose any attempts at liberalization. The USAID effectively undermined not the Cuban government but rather the very opposition movements within Cuba they are trying to help.

But this news will not just harm U.S.-Cuban relations and Cuban attempts at liberalization — it delegitimizes USAID as a whole. The agency, established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, promotes development, combats diseases, protects human rights and assists in disaster response. For all of the good it has done, though, foreign countries often regard USAID projects with suspicion. Local governments worry that USAID has ulterior motives — that perhaps it is really just a form of imperialism veiled by claims of humanitarianism. These suspicions breed distrust, making target countries unreceptive to USAID.

In Afghanistan, where USAID’s biggest program is located, women’s empowerment programs have proven unsuccessful. These programs, geared towards improving female access to education, health care and economic opportunities, have been met with resistance. They are often regarded as attempts to impose Western morality on the Middle East and have failed as a result. Suspicions of USAID’s intentions are even taken to extremes. In countries afflicted by the AIDS epidemic, USAID’s attempts at treatment and prevention have fueled conspiracy theories that AIDS is a U.S.-manufactured disease. While I am by no means insinuating that USAID is actually guilty of any of the extreme allegations made against it, the recent revelations about USAID’s “Cuban Twitter” fuels the distrust. It demonstrates that USAID is not, as is purports to be, an agency geared solely towards humanitarian assistance.

USAID has a mandate, in layman’s terms, to help people. But their recent attempt to “help” the Cuban people through controversial political programs does not better anyone’s life; it only detracts from the agency’s ability to partake in valuable humanitarian assistance.

Haley Adams is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at haley.adams@yale.edu.

 

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