WASHINGTON (AP) — 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, a Democrat, 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.
"And we do programs, as you know, around the world that promote democracy and promote access to this type of information," she said.
Documents and interviews make clear that the program was aimed at recruiting a new generation of activists opposed 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."
Not all lawmakers who were commenting on Monday critical.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, 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.
"Although there is never total certainty, trust that the authorities will not try to harm you physically, only frighten you," read a memo obtained by the AP. "Remember that the Cuban government prefers to avoid negative media reports abroad, so a beaten foreigner is not convenient for them."
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.
Officials say USAID launched "discreet" programs like ZunZuneo to increase the flow of information in a country that heavily restricts it. But the AP's earlier investigation found ZunZuneo was political in nature and drew in subscribers unaware that the service was paid for by the U.S. government.
"USAID and the Obama administration are committed to supporting the Cuban people's desire to freely determine their own future," the agency said in response to written questions from the AP. "USAID works with independent youth groups in Cuba on community service projects, public health, the arts and other opportunities to engage publicly, consistent with democracy programs worldwide."
Creative Associates declined to comment, referring questions to USAID.
Both ZunZuneo and the travelers program 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 program was launched when newly inaugurated President Barack Obama's administration was talking 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.
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.
"We worked it so that the government here didn't know we were traveling to Cuba and helping these groups," said Yajaira Andrade, a former administrator with a Venezuelan organization. "Because that was when (President Hugo) Chavez was in power, and if he had known about us — that some Venezuelans were working to stir rebellion — we would have been thrown in jail."
To evade Cuban authorities, travelers installed innocent-looking content on their laptops to mask sensitive information they were carrying. They also used encrypted memory sticks to hide their files and sent obviously encrypted emails using a system that might have drawn suspicion.
It is illegal in Cuba to work with foreign democracy-building programs. Nevertheless, one contract was signed days after Gross' detention.
Arce reported from San Jose, Costa Rica, and Rodriguez from Santa Clara, Cuba. Associated Press writers Hannah Dreier in Caracas, Venezuela; Peter Orsi in Havana; Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru; Raphael Satter in Dublin; and Monika Mathur in Washington contributed to this report.
Contact the AP's Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations@ap.org. On Twitter, follow Butler at https://twitter.com/desmondbutler; Gillum at https://twitter.com/jackgillum; Arce at https://twitter.com/alberarce; and Rodriguez at https://twitter.com/arodriguezap.
Documents about the program at http://apne.ws/UxJ05x
Link to the unabridged story: http://apne.ws/1v2xBLO
Another in a series of stories detailing secret American political activity in Cuba under the Obama administration, including the creation of a secret U.S.-backed "Cuban Twitter" program.