Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Groups – US political effort in Cuba hurts aid work

    Posted on Monday, 08.04.14

    Groups: US political effort in Cuba hurts aid work

    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
    political activity.

    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.