The argument du jour for opponents of the U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) programs to promote democracy in Cuba is that they violate the island's "sovereignty" by advocating "regime change."
The latest congressional manifestation of this opposition comes from U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who announced last week that he would unilaterally delay the Obama Administration's disbursement of $20 million appropriated by the U.S. Congress for FY 2010.
Never mind that these programs support the families of Cubans jailed for their support of democracy, their loved ones fired from their jobs and their children expelled from school. The programs also provide cell phones, laptops and other basic items that Cuba's bloggers need to break through the regime's censorship and information monopoly in their efforts to build a civil society; and that they provide books to independent libraries, paper and pencils to labor unions and journalists to allow them to exercise their fundamental human right of free expression.
For opponents of these democracy programs, that's all irrelevant. They want the programs scrapped altogether and replaced with ones pre-approved by Cuba's dictatorship.
According to Kerry, "there is no evidence... that the 'democracy promotion' (quotations are his) programs... are helping the Cuban people. Nor have they achieved much more than provoking the Cuban government to arrest a U.S. government contractor who was distributing satellite communication sets to Cuban contacts."
That U.S. government contractor is 62-year-old Alan Gross, who was helping Cuba's Jewish community connect to the Internet -- a fundamental right protected by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Kerry also announced that he has requested an investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) "into the legal basis and effectiveness of these operations."
Yet these programs are clearly prescribed in the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (LIBERTAD Act). So, is Senator Kerry really responding to complaints raised by the Castro regime? The regime has made it abundantly clear -- most recently to former President Jimmy Carter -- that it considers these programs to be a violation of Cuban "law" (its dictatorial decrees) and views them as a nuisance to its totalitarian rule.
It is hard to imagine that this is the same Senator Kerry who has been a steadfast advocate of "regime change" in Egypt and Libya, and the biggest cheerleader of the Obama Administration's military operation in support of Libya's rebels, which cost $100 million on the first day alone.
Why is Senator Kerry so hostile to the concept of "regime change" in Cuba, but not in North Africa and the Middle East? How can he support financing the violent overthrow of the Gaddafi regime by armed Libyan rebels, but not the distribution of laptops and books for Cuba's opposition movement, which only advocates a peaceful transition to democracy?
As the well-known Washington maxim goes -- "personnel is policy." And in the case of Senator Kerry, the answer can be found in his senior advisor for Latin America, Fulton Armstrong.
Armstrong is a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst with a known history of hindering the execution of U.S. policy towards Cuba. Together with his former colleague at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Ana Belen Montes, Armstrong authored an oft-cited 1998 report that argued that Cuba no longer posed a security threat to the United States. Ironically, just three years later (in 2001), Montes was identified as a Cuban spy, arrested, convicted and is now serving life in a federal prison.
Armstrong's strong opposition to USAID's Cuba democracy programs is widely-known in the halls of Congress and the State Department to be based on his strong personal objection to the concept of "regime change."
Here's a permanent solution to this semantic disagreement:
Let's discard the concept of "regime change" and, instead, coalesce around a new option of "regime choice" for the Cuban people.
Regime choice encapsulates what is surely our shared goal for Cuba -- free and fair multi-party elections. And it is consistent with the LIBERTAD Act, which would consequently consummate (and expire) when Cuba holds free and fair elections.
Free and fair elections are also the only means for the Cuban people to legitimately vest "sovereignty" to Cuba's government; it cannot be inherited or seized by force -- it is only granted to governments by the free choice and will of its people.
So, let's move forward and work together to promote "regime choice" for the Cuban people.
Surely, Senator Kerry would agree.
Mauricio Claver-Carone is a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and founding editor of CapitolHillCubans.com in Washington, D.C. He is an attorney who formerly served with the U.S. Department of the Treasury and has served on the full-time faculty of The Catholic University of America's School of Law and adjunct faculty of The George Washington University's National Law Center.