Cuba calls U.S. political work on island 'covert' and shameful

By Desmond Butler, Jack Gillum and Peter Orsi
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Cuban government on Tuesday called on Washington to halt hostile "covert" operations against it in the wake of the recent disclosure that an Obama administration program secretly sent young Latin Americans to Cuba on politically motivated missions.

A top Cuban diplomatic official, Josefina Vidal, said an Associated Press investigation this week reveals that the U.S. government "has not desisted in its hostile and interventionist plans against Cuba, which seek to create destabilizing situations to provoke changes in our political order."

Vidal demanded the U.S. "cease, once and for all, all its subversive, illegal and covert actions against Cuba" in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. She noted the U.S. government has "shamelessly acknowledged" running the program.

The project, funded and overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development, deployed nearly a dozen young people from Latin America to Cuba to recruit political activists under the guise of health and civic projects. AP's investigation found the operation put the foreigners in danger not long after an American contractor was arrested in the communist island nation for doing secretive work.

The Obama administration this week defended its use of an HIV-prevention workshop for its Cuban democracy-promotion efforts, but disputed that the project was a front for political purposes. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said 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."

A Costa Rica-based subcontractor involved in the project said Monday that his organization didn't seek to destabilize Cuba politically. "We want to deny that there were clandestine intentions to generate political involvement," said Fernando Murillo, the head of Fundacion Operacion Gaya Internacional.

Public health advocates and U.S. lawmakers were highly critical of the administration's use of an HIV-prevention workshop to advance a political agenda, saying such clandestine efforts put health programs at risk around the world.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who leads a panel that oversees USAID's spending, said Monday it would be "worse than irresponsible" if the agency "concocted" an HIV-prevention workshop for political purposes.

InterAction, an alliance of global non-governmental aid groups, called such a use of an HIV workshop "unacceptable." The U.S. government, it said, "should never sacrifice delivering basic health services or civic programs to advance an intelligence goal."

The AP's investigation found the program was deliberately aimed at recruiting a younger generation of opponents to Cuba's Castro government, although it's 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 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.

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.

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.

"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."

Published: Thu, Aug 07, 2014