November 10, 2014; New York Times

If you’re an NGO that has been recruited to promote democracy in countries like Cuba, which may not want American democracy, the U.S. government is changing its policy about hiring, recruitment, and publicity. The Associated Press is reporting that the U.S. Agency for International Development is working on a rule, tracking the intent of a bill in the U.S. Senate this past summer, that would “prohibit USAID from spending money on democracy programs in countries that reject the agency’s assistance, where staff wasn’t directly hired and where USAID would have to go to ‘excessive lengths to protect program beneficiaries and participants.’”

“In a statement late Sunday, USAID said it would continue to carry out democracy programs in ‘politically restrictive environments’ and aim to be transparent,” the AP reported. “But it said the new rules would balance safety and security risks, which aligns with proposed legislation that would stop USAID’s democracy work in hostile countries that outright reject the agency’s help and where USAID’s role had to be minimized.”

This all stems from the controversy surrounding USAID’s support for a Cuban Twitter clone called ZunZuneo aimed at recruiting Cuban dissidents. The relatively covert operation, conducted by a for-profit USAID contractor (Creative Associates International), earned the description “cockamamie” from Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in a Senate subcommittee hearing.

Although the USAID Inspector General is looking into ZunZuneo, the import of this impending rule change is that USAID will likely be getting out of the democracy-promotion and regime-change business in democracy-resistant nations and shifting those efforts to the Department of State (of which USAID is nominally a part, though it operates relatively independently—or is supposed to) and to the nonprofit National Endowment for Democracy.

The New York Times editorialized yesterday about USAID’s “misadventures” in regime change in Cuba, part of the nation’s efforts dating back to 1996 to overthrow the Castro regime under the authority of the Helms-Burton Act that was signed by then-President Bill Clinton. The Times reports that the U.S. has spent $264 million to promote democracy in Cuba over the years, but describes the results as “largely counterproductive,” with the funding having served as “a magnet for charlatans [and] swindlers…[that] provided Cuba with a trove of propaganda fodder and stymied opportunities to cooperate in areas of mutual interest.”

USAID’s support of Creative’s Twitter manqué ended in 2012, though it isn’t clear whether the reason was due to the dopiness of the program, the fact that substantial money was paid in text-messaging fees to the Cuban telecommunications structure, or that USAID and Creative were paying Cubans as little as $5.41 an hour to work for them on activities that could have earned them long prison sentences. Or perhaps the people at USAID or Creative figured out that not only was the program, in Leahy’s words, “cockamamie,” but its use of HIV/AIDS prevention workshops as a means of identifying and recruiting regime-change friendly young people was actually endangering HIV/AIDS workers around the world, who might now be suspect as covert political operatives—comparable to the risks now faced by polio vaccine workers after the CIA ran a fake vaccination drive to get at Osama bin Laden. When a humanitarian-identified agency like USAID recruits contractors—for-profit or nonprofit—to engage in covert regime change programs, particularly with the benign covers of social media, vaccinations, and HIV/AIDS prevention, the credibility and safety of a much larger swath of NGOs is put at risk. One hopes that the result of the USAID rule change is to get USAID out of the business of regime change.—Rick Cohen