The Associated Press dropped a big investigative story this morning on how “The U.S. government masterminded the creation of a ‘Cuban Twitter’—a communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba, built with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks.”
The project, which lasted more than two years and drew tens of thousands of subscribers, sought to evade Cuba’s stranglehold on the Internet with a primitive social media platform. First, the network would build a Cuban audience, mostly young people; then, the plan was to push them toward dissent.
Yet its users were neither aware it was created by a U.S. agency with ties to the State Department, nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.
It is unclear whether the scheme was legal under U.S. law, which requires written authorization of covert action by the president and congressional notification. Officials at USAID would not say who had approved the program or whether the White House was aware of it. The Cuban government declined a request for comment.
If you study or work on democratization or development, this story is one you’ve got to read. That “U.S. agency with ties to the State Department” mentioned in the snippet above is none other than USAID, the supposedly benign and benevolent arm of U.S. development assistance around the world.
As I read the story, I kept thinking: how myopic. I don’t have time this morning to write a post explaining why I think this is a terrible idea, so I hope you’ll forgive me for quoting from a post I wrote on the same topic nearly three years ago, when talk of U.S. government–funded “Internet in a suitcase” programs aimed at keeping the Arab Spring rolling was hotting up. I hope you’ll take a minute to read the whole thing, but here’s my core complaint:
What worries me is that those well-intentioned officials may not have thought through how modest support for activists in authoritarian regimes might backfire. In a paper I presented at an academic conference a few years ago, I used game theory to explore the conditions under which authoritarian rulers might expand civil liberties in spite of the attendant threats to their power in an effort to reduce government expenses and accelerate economic growth. The formal model in that paper suggested that, other things being equal, autocrats are most likely to liberalize when political opponents pose either a grave threat or a minimal threat to their power. When would-be rivals pose a moderate threat, autocrats will feel compelled to keep the screws turned tight to prevent those rivals from gaining the strength that could transform them into a formidable foe. In this situation, the risks of liberalization will often outweigh the potential benefits.
If foreign governments reliably provided enough support to budding opposition movements to enable those movements to overwhelm autocrats’ defenses, we might expect injections of foreign support to spur autocrats to liberalize before they get toppled. As long as foreign contributions fall short of those heights, however—and they nearly always do—autocrats have strong incentives to respond to those interventions by clamping down, not opening up. This problem may be exacerbated by a substitution effect, whereby activists choose to invest less of their own time and money in overcoming barriers to communication because they expect foreign interventions to solve those problems. In other words, the chief outcomes we would expect to see from foreign support for popular uprisings would be more repression, not less, and weaker prospects for a transition to democracy.
The other issue I touched on at the end that post was the effect a revelation like this one has on USAID’s other endeavors, many of which of which are fairly straightforward and well-intentioned programs aimed at improving peoples’ lives in more fundamental ways, like vaccination and nutrition. Programs like this “Cuban Twitter” fiasco erode USAID’s credibility as an agent of development assistance everywhere. “If the U.S. government used USAID as a Trojan horse in Cuba,” politicians around the world might ask themselves, “why not in my country, too?” It’s hard for me to see whatever marginal effect this Cuban program might have had on the prospects for regime change in that country being worth the costs those doubts will impose on USAID’s work everywhere else.