Groups – US political effort in Cuba hurts aid work
Posted on Monday, 08.04.14
Groups: US political effort in Cuba hurts aid work
BY DESMOND BUTLER AND JACK GILLUM AND PETER ORSI AND ANDREA RODRIGUEZ
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON — A U.S. program in Cuba that secretly used an
HIV-prevention workshop for political activism was assailed Monday by
international public health officials and members of Congress who
declared that such clandestine efforts put health programs at risk
around the world.
Beginning in late 2009, the U.S. Agency for International Development
deployed nearly a dozen young people from Latin America to Cuba to
recruit political activists, an Associated Press investigation found.
The operation put the foreigners in danger not long after a U.S.
contractor was hauled away to a Cuban jail.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Monday it would be “worse than
irresponsible” if USAID “concocted” an HIV-prevention workshop to
promote a political agenda.
And InterAction, an alliance of global non-governmental aid groups,
said, “The use of an HIV workshop for intelligence purposes is
unacceptable. The U.S. government should never sacrifice delivering
basic health services or civic programs to advance an intelligence goal.”
The Obama administration defended its use of the HIV-prevention workshop
for its Cuban democracy-promotion efforts but disputed that the project
was a front for political purposes. The program “enabled support for
Cuban civil society, while providing a secondary benefit of addressing
the desires Cubans express for information and training about HIV
prevention,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Documents and interviews make clear that the program was aimed at
recruiting a younger generation of opponents to Cuba’s Castro
government. It is illegal in Cuba to work with foreign
democracy-building programs. Documents prepared for the USAID-sponsored
program called the HIV workshop the “perfect excuse” to conduct
Leahy, who is chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that
oversees USAID, said in response to the AP’s findings: “It may have been
good business for USAID’s contractor, but it tarnishes USAID’s long
track record as a leader in global health.”
The White House is still facing questions about a once-secret “Cuban
Twitter” project, known as ZunZuneo. That program, launched by USAID in
2009 and uncovered by the AP in April, established a primitive social
media network under the noses of Cuban officials. USAID’s inspector
general is investigating it.
In April, Leahy called the ZunZuneo program “dumb, dumb, dumb.”
But on Monday, not all lawmakers were critical.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said USAID’s programs were important
for human rights in Cuba. “We must continue to pressure the Castro
regime and support the Cuban people, who are oppressed on a daily
basis,” said Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban native and vocal supporter of
pro-democracy programs there.
As for health projects, the latest criticisms come months after a pledge
by the CIA to stop using vaccine programs — such as one in Pakistan that
targeted Osama bin Laden — to gather intelligence.
In the HIV workshop effort, the AP’s investigation found the Latin
American travelers’ efforts were fraught with incompetence and risk. The
young workers nearly blew their mission to “identify potential
social-change actors.” One said he got a paltry, 30-minute seminar on
how to evade Cuban intelligence, and there appeared to be no safety net
for the inexperienced workers if they were caught.
In all, nearly a dozen Latin Americans served in the program in Cuba,
for pay as low as $5.41 an hour.
The AP found USAID and its contractor, Creative Associates
International, continued the program even as U.S. officials privately
told their government contractors to consider suspending travel to Cuba
after the arrest of contractor Alan Gross, who remains imprisoned after
smuggling in sensitive technology. A lawyer for Gross said Monday that
his client cannot take life in prison much longer and has said his
goodbyes to his wife and a daughter.
“We value your safety,” one senior USAID official said in an email
concerning the Latin American travelers. “The guidance applies to ALL
travelers to the island, not just American citizens,” another official said.
Creative Associates declined to comment, referring questions to USAID.
“All governments need to make trade-offs, for example, between civil
liberties and public safety,” said Les Roberts, a professor at Columbia
University’s Mailman School of Public Health. In the case of Cuba, he
said, there is a trade-off between conducting neutral development
efforts and “the political goal of regime change in Cuba.”
“Without the appearance of neutrality,” he said, “few things USAID wants
to do internationally can be achieved.”
Drawing on documents and interviews worldwide, the AP found the
travelers program went to extensive lengths to hide the workers’
activities. They were to communicate in code: “I have a headache” meant
they suspected they were being monitored by Cuban authorities; “Your
sister is ill” was an order to cut their trip short.
To evade Cuban authorities, travelers installed innocent-looking content
on their laptops to mask sensitive information. They used encrypted
memory sticks to hide their files and sent obviously encrypted emails
using a system that might have drawn suspicion.
“These programs are in desperate need of adult supervision,” said Sen.
Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican and longtime critic of USAID’s Cuba
projects. “If you are using an AIDS workshop as a front for something
else, that’s — I don’t know what to say — it’s just wrong.”
Both the travelers program and ZunZuneo were part of a larger,
multimillion-dollar effort by USAID to effect change in politically
volatile countries, government data show. But the programs reviewed by
the AP didn’t appear to achieve their goals and operated under an agency
known more for its international-aid work than stealthy operations.
The travelers’ project was funded under the same pot of federal money
that paid for ZunZuneo. But USAID has yet to provide the AP with a
complete copy of the Cuban contracts despite a Freedom of Information
Act request filed more than three months ago.