HAVANA, Cuba — On August 5, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez (D-NJ) released a statement declaring his “full support” for the United States Agency for International Development civil society programs in Cuba. Menendez says the programs are in line with the U.S.’s commitment to support democracy and human rights and fight against extreme poverty.
The day before Menendez’s statement, the Associated Press published an article detailing the findings of a deep investigation into the USAID program in Cuba.
Fernando Murillo, a Costa Rica native, was 24 years old when he was recruited by Creative Associates International, a company hired by USAID to help drive the civil society anti-government programs in Cuba.
Murillo traveled to Cuba with the mission “to generate a network of volunteers for social transformation,” according to a report he wrote for Creative Associates.
He was sent to Cuba four months after USAID told all contractors, including Creative Associates, that sending young people into Cuba was becoming dangerous, and they should consider not sending anymore travelers. This was in light of the 2010 arrest of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor, who remains in Cuban custody.
Once in Cuba, Murillo had to figure out a safe way to begin the recruitment process, so he set up an HIV-prevention workshop. In a report back to Creative Associates, he described the workshop as “the perfect excuse for the treatment of the underlying theme.”
USAID has come under fire for the HIV-prevention program guise. It is reminiscent of the vaccination ruse used by the CIA in 2011 to gain information about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.
Taliban commanders in Pakistan have reacted to that strategy by banning polio vaccination teams in sections of the country, prompting the CIA has to promise never to use a vaccination scheme again.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) sees the potential for similar consequences from the USAID HIV-prevention program. “It tarnishes USAID’s long track record as a leader in global health,” he says.
Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) agrees, saying: “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.”
The program, however, has its defenders. Cuban native Representative Ileana Ros-Lehitnen (R-FL) has said how important it is that the Castro regime is pressured, and the Cuban people are supported.
State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki released a statement saying that the HIV-prevention program has the dual purpose of engendering support for Cuban civil society as well as providing needed information about HIV prevention.
Apart from Murillo’s health program, teams of other young Latin Americans have been sent to the country’s college campuses to enlist university students in the anti-government movement.
Documents reveal spreadsheets with lists of potential recruits and the leadership qualities they possess that would prove useful for the movement.
“They were our friends,” said Hector Baranda, a top recruit. Baranda never realized the visitors were working with the U.S. to turn them against their government, and he told the AP that he harbors no significant anti-government sentiment.
After the Associated Press’ report revealed the programs, the Cuban government released a statement, telling Washington to bring an end to all covert operations in the country.
USAID spokesman Matt Herrick responded to accusations of putting youth’s safety at risk through enlisting them in illegal activity in Cuba. “This work is not secret, it is not covert, nor is it undercover,” he said.
However, when asked by the Associated Press to comment on his activity in Cuba, Murillo said his work in the country was solely focused on teaching people how to use condoms.
“We want to deny that there were clandestine intentions to generate political involvement,” Murillo said.
“USAID remains committed to balancing the realities of working in closed societies…with our commitment to transparency,” Herrick says, providing an explanation for the secrecy which has clouded the programs.
Despite all the controversy, the USAID programs have not proven themselves to be productive. There is no evidence to show the pro-democracy movement in Cuba has been strengthened by the U.S. involvement.
– Julianne O’Connor