USAID’s undercover Latin youth — whose brainchild is this, pray tell (video)

— Domani Spero
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Read more here. Documents about this program is at http://apne.ws/UxJ05x.

Whose brainchild is this, pray tell.

Alan Gross, the  65-year-old American citizen mentioned in this article has been imprisoned in Cuba since 2009. His family has mounted a petition demanding Mr. Gross’ “immediate release” and  that “the Cuban and U.S. governments sit down and resolve Alan’s case.”

This morning, USAID released a statement about what it calls, the AP’s “sensational claims,”excerpt below:

Congress funds democracy programming in Cuba to empower Cubans to access more information and strengthen civil society. USAID makes information about its Cuba programs available publicly at foreignassistance.gov. This work is not secret, it is not covert, nor is it undercover. Instead, it is important to our mission to support universal values, end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies. Chief among those universal values are the right to speak freely, assemble and associate without fear, and freely elect political leaders. Sadly, the Cuban people and many others in the global community continue to be denied these basic rights.

One paragraph in the article captures the purpose of these and many civil society programs, which is to empower citizens to “tackle a community or social problem, win a ‘small victory’ and ultimately realize that they could be the masters of their own destiny.” But the story then goes on to make sensational claims against aid workers for supporting civil society programs and striving to give voice to these democratic aspirations. This is wrong.

USAID remains committed to balancing the realities of working in closed societies–particularly in places where we do not have a USAID mission and governments are hostile to U.S. assistance–with our commitment to transparency, and we continuously balance our commitment to transparency with the need for discretion in repressive environments. In the end, USAID’s goal is to continue to support democracy, governance and human rights activities in multiple settings, while providing the maximum transparency possible given the specific circumstances.

A couple of items from that USAID statement: 1)   “the Cuban people and many others in the global community,” does that mean this happened in Cuba and elsewhere?; 2) “with our commitment to transparency” — USAID’s Cuba programs data available publicly at foreignassistance.gov only covers FY2013 and 2014 and not the years covered by the AP report. USAID also would not tell the AP how much the Costa Rica-based program cost.

These young “aid workers” from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Peru sent to Cuba could have been arrested and jailed for 10 years for the work they did for USAID, and the agency would have been able to claim that these are not USG employees.  The US has not been able to effect the release of USAID contractor Alan Gross, would it be any more successful intervening for the release of foreign nationals who are not?  Also, the notion that you can run democracy promotion operations like this in certain parts of the world and that it will not have a dangerous blowback against USAID employees advancing development work in other parts of the world, is frankly, lunacy.

Does USAID have a scenario planned for what happens after a ‘Cuban Spring’unfolds in Cuba? Is it publicly available at fomentingchange.gov?

Just a reminder, the nominee for USAID OIG, in case you’re wondering has been waiting for Senate confirmation since July 2013 (see Officially In: Michael G. Carroll – From Deputy IG to USAID/OIG).

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Cuban Twitter: Short Message Service for Displaced People in the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan?

— Domani Spero

The month of April started off with a bang for USAID!  We saw the Twitter Cubano story first, and then there’s USAID’s reportedly $1billion a year “DARPA-like” innovation lab.  Also SIGAR John Sopko accused USAID of cover up in Afghanistan. And no, USAID Administrator is not going to New Delhi as the next US Ambassador to India. We were seriously intrigued by  the ZunZuneo story, the secret Cuban Twitter reported by the Associated Press. Can you blame us?

 

We thought the Associated Press did a great investigative piece. Sorry, we are not convinced that this was ‘breathlessly written.’

In July 2010, Joe McSpedon, a U.S. government official, flew to Barcelona to put the final touches on a secret plan to build a social media project aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government.

McSpedon and his team of high-tech contractors had come in from Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Washington and Denver. Their mission: to launch a messaging network that could reach hundreds of thousands of Cubans. To hide the network from the Cuban government, they would set up a byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account, and recruit unsuspecting executives who would not be told of the company’s ties to the U.S. government.

McSpedon didn’t work for the CIA. This was a program paid for and run by the U.S. Agency for International Development, best known for overseeing billions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian aid.

For a look on how much the U.S. Government spent on Cuban Democracy between 1996-2011, see a snapshot of the funding here.

In an interview with Popular Science, USAID’s Administrator, Rajiv Shah, who led USAID through the program, defended it.

“One of the areas we work in is in the area of rights protection and accountability,” Shah said. The highest-level official named in the AP documents is a mid-level manager named Joe McSpedon.

But Shah—despite the fact that the program was unknown to the public—said the idea that ZunZuneo was a covert operation is “inaccurate,” and pointed out that there are other USAID programs that require secrecy, such as protecting the identities of humanitarian workers in Syria. “These projects are notified to Congress and the subject of a thorough accountability report,” he said.

 

The AP story mentions two USAID connected companies: Creative Associates International as contractor and Denver-based Mobile Accord Inc. as one of the subcontractors.

According to Denver Business Journal, Mobile Accord is the parent organization of the mGive business, which helps nonprofits raise donation via text message, and of the GeoPoll business handling opinion surveys in developing nations.

The Guardian reports that the money that Creative Associates spent on ZunZuneo was “publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan, government data show. But there is no indication of where the funds were actually spent.”

So we went digging over at USASpending.gov. The first contract we located is a State Department contract with Mobile Accord in the amount of $969,000 and signed on September 18, 2009.  The contract description says: “Short Message Service Support to Be Provided to Displaced People in the Northwest Frontier of PAKISTAN.”

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The second contract also with Mobile Accord in the amount of $720,000 was signed in July 8, 2010:

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So if Twitter Cubano was not a “covert”operation, what’s this over $1.6 million contract between the State Department and Mobile Accord for the Northwest Frontier Pakistan about?  The folks who prepared this data for USASpending.gov did not really intend to be inaccurate with this public information, right?  They just inadvetently spelled ‘Cuba’ as ‘Northwest Frontier Pakistan.’

And this is the official version of  ‘truth in reporting”as public service? What you don’t know can’t harm you?

If this money actually went to Twitter Cubano, and was hidden in plain sight, how are we to believe the accuracy of the data we see on the USASpending website?

Where else do we have similar projects for democracy promotion and/or regime change if possible, do you know?

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Snapshot: Cuba Democracy Funding to State and USAID – FY1996-2011

— Domani Spero

The Associated Press recently produced an investigative piece on ZunZuneo, a Twitter Cubano reportedly aimed at undermining the socialist government in Cuba that was managed by USAID.

The official government response cited a GAO report from 2013 which make no mention of ZunZeneo. The report, however, provides a snapshot of how much we have spent on the Cuba Democracy project from 1996-2011. Ay mucho dinero:

In fiscal years 1996 through 2011, Congress appropriated $205 million for Cuba democracy assistance, appropriating 87 percent of these funds since 2004. Increased funding for Cuba democracy assistance was recommended by the interagency Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which was established by President George W. Bush in 2003.13 Program funding, which peaked in 2008 with appropriations totaling $44.4 million, has ranged between $15 and $20 million per year during fiscal years 2009 through 2012. For fiscal year 2013, USAID and State reduced their combined funding request to $15 million, citing operational challenges to assistance efforts in Cuba.14

In fiscal years 1996 through 2011, $138.2 million of Cuba democracy funds were allocated to USAID and $52.3 million were allocated to State. (see GAO report pdf).

 

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