A program established under the Obama Administration by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) endangered about a dozen young Latin Americans by employing them to incite political revolt in Cuba by using civil society and humanitarian aid programs as fronts for the real aim of political destabilization on the Communist island, reveals an extensive new AP investigation published Monday.
The secret program "was launched during a time when newly inaugurated President Barack Obama spoke about a 'new beginning' with Cuba after decades of mistrust, raising questions about whether the White House had a coherent policy toward the island nation," according to the AP.
To help it implement the plan, USAID hired the firm Creative Associates International, the same Washington-based company that played a central role in the creation of the secret "Cuban Twitter" that the AP reported on in April.
Characterizing the program as "an operation that often teetered on disaster," the investigation's most shocking discovery was perhaps that of an attempt to recruit dissidents using "a ruse that could undermine USAID’s credibility in critical health work around the world." This "ruse" was an HIV-prevention workshop put together by one of the key hires made by Creative Associates, Fernando Murillo, the 29-year-old head of a Costa Rica-based human rights group. Murillo reported back to his employer that such a workshop was the “perfect excuse” to recruit political activists."
As DSWright points out at Firedoglake, what's so disturbing about this is that "USAID was recently involved in setting up fake hepatitis clinics for the CIA in Pakistan," causing Pakistanis to refuse being vaccinated, and prompting the White House to promise to never again use health clinics as a front for intelligence operations.
The travelers' program was implemented at a time when the danger of being a U.S. operative on the island "was apparent to USAID, if not to the young operatives," the investigation found, since Alan Gross, an American USAID contractor, "had just been hauled away to a Cuban jail." After Gross' arrest, USAID told contractors that they should consider suspending programs to Cuba and that—in the words of one official—the warning applied "to ALL travelers to the island, not just American citizens."
And yet, just four months after Gross' arrest, Murillo was sent to the island by the USAID, marking the beginning of yet another failed covert operation to overthrow the Cuban government.
Whereas Gross was paid over half a million dollars by the U.S. government, despite the fact that he had never been to Cuba and his Spanish was quite poor, the young Latin Americans were paid as little as $5.41 an hour. Other aspects of how they were used appear to have been dangerous and poorly thought out—in one example, a friend of Murillo's who was used as a "mule" to bring money to a student group in Cuba said that his security training had amounted to about a half hour and was done via Skype.
While USAID did not deny the contents of the story, in a statement put out Monday the agency highlighted the fact that Congress funds “democracy programming in Cuba to empower Cubans to access more information and strengthen civil society,” and that “this work is not secret, it is not covert, nor is it undercover." The statement failed to address the program in question, which is not a part of any such funding from Congress, and was secret until Monday. The same defense was used of the fake social network built by USAID, despite every aspect of it having been entirely covert.
The project was paid for out of the same fund used for the fake Cuban Twitter. USAID declined to comment on how much was spent on the travelers' program, and has not fulfilled the AP's Freedom of Information Act request for a complete copy of the Cuban contracts that was filed more than three months ago.
The AP found "no evidence the political objectives were ever realized" and Cuban students belonging to what had been identified as a "target group" due to its supposed organizational abilities and political stance were "astonished to discover that the foreigners were acting on behalf of the U.S. government." One student said that he thought the operatives mistook typical Cuban griping on things like basic infrastructure issues for full-on political dissent.