The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sent nearly a dozen young operatives to Cuba to covertly organize anti-government activities on the pretext of running civil society programs, including HIV prevention workshops, the Associated Press reported Monday.
The USAID recruits — some paid as little as $5.41 an hour and with little undercover experience — came from Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Peru over a two-year period. USAID also hired the Washington-based Creative Associates International to consult on the program, the same company behind USAID's failed "Cuban Twitter," a messaging network intended to spur anti-government sentiment, the AP reported. USAID declined to disclose the cost of the Costa Rica based program.
USAID's young agents posed as tourists to visit college campuses, the AP found. One operative told the AP that HIV prevention workshops were the "perfect excuse" for spurring anti-government activities: the idea was to use the workshops as a pretext for teaching organizing tactics among potential political activists. USAID defended the program in a statement to the AP, saying it "enabled support for Cuban civil society while providing a secondary benefit of addressing the desire Cubans expressed for information and training about HIV prevention."
The program, however, carried serious risks. Cuba has long accused the U.S. and other foreign countries of trying to foment unrest via civil society programs — and this latest scandal fits nicely into the narrative. With the AP's latest report, critics are worried that Cuba could use the USAID example to further discredit health programs, including HIV prevention, as a dangerous front for seditious activity.
The young and barely trained recruits also reported being watched and followed by Cuban security. Cuba has outlawed USAID from conducting democracy promotion programs, and made such activists punishable by up to ten years in jail, the AP reported. Cuba has held American Alan Gross in jail since 2009 on charges of espionage after he was caught smuggling in sensitive technology.
The U.S. has a history of masking covert spying behind public health initiatives. In Pakistan, the U.S. organized polio vaccination campaigns to try and catch Osama Bin Laden. Pakistan is now the most dangerous place in the world for polio workers, as people continue to bear a deep distrust of prevention programs.