Creating a means to spread information freely is exactly what the CIA did when it began funding Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL collectively) in the early days of the Cold War. The “radios” filled the media void behind the Iron Curtain by providing objective news coverage of local and Western events as well as broadcasting cultural features such as sports, religion, music, and literature. Additionally, people who were denied access to state-controlled media were able to reach audiences through RFE/RL. The broadcasts sought a broad appeal: communists, non-communists, elites, and the masses. Even though some communist officials gleaned information from the broadcasts (compensating for the dearth of information from the state-controlled local media), the radios were also subject to opposition from communist governments. Frequencies were jammed, and RFE/RL staff and sources were intimidated, jailed, and killed. Moreover, RFE/RL’s headquarters in Munich, West Germany was bombed by Romania in 1981.
Despite being funded by the CIA, RFE/RL’s broadcasts did not openly incite rebellion against communism. Rather, they encouraged gradual change. In pursuing the ZunZuneo program, the U.S. would have done well to follow the RFE/RL model since documents showing the U.S.’s goal of fomenting rebellion have generated controversy. USAID’s reputation has taken a hit, which may undermine its humanitarian missions worldwide, and questions as to the program’s legality have been raised. After all, there is a significant difference between the U.S. providing a platform for dissidents to use and the U.S. provoking dissidence. Perhaps the success of social media in fostering protests like those against Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 presented the U.S. with an idea too good to pass up. However, decades of unsuccessful U.S. operations in Cuba show that rapid regime change is difficult business.
As RFE/RL did in Eastern Europe, the more subtle method of providing access to information and an avenue for political discussion can help to lay the groundwork for a successful transition to democracy. Although it may take longer to accomplish, and be only one factor causing a change in government, Eastern Europe has been democratic since roughly 1989 whereas the blatant attempts to undermine Cuban communism have resulted in Cuba still being communist. It is impossible to know if trying the more restrained RFE/RL approach over 60 years ago would have resulted in a democratic Cuba, but it should be clear that a new approach is needed now.
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