HAVANA, Cuba — A secret U.S. program in Cuba has come under fire for using an HIV-prevention workshop as a front for promoting democracy and spreading anti-Castro sentiments on the island.
The program, which USAID started in 2009, was designed to recruit local youth to become political activists. The young Latin Americans were trained to evade Cuban police as they spread dissent over Castro’s dictatorship.
All told, about a dozen Latin Americans were recruited into the program. Their mission was to promote democracy in Cuba by recruiting new political activists and gathering intelligence on important political actors.
Since it is illegal to work with foreign democracy initiatives in Cuba, all of the participants were taking major risks for little reward. The activists were paid as little as $5.41 an hour for their services.
Such risky democracy promotion tactics are not unprecedented by USAID. Contractor Alan Gross was tasked with establishing a Twitter-like messaging service as a vehicle to spread democracy. However, Gross was caught and arrested on charges of espionage and smuggling. He is currently five years into a 15-year sentence in Cuban prison.
The plan failed utterly and the U.S. has all but abandoned Gross in Cuba.
In Pakistan, the U.S. again used a fake health program to push a political agenda. In the guise of a polio vaccination program, the CIA gathered intelligence on the location of Osama bin Laden. Pakistan found out and banned all polio vaccinations in the country.
In an unfortunate twist, polio had a resurgence in the country. And since 2012, over 60 polio health workers have been killed because of the ban.
Though this most recent fake health program has not had overly negative ramifications yet, the reaction thus far has been outrage.
For the most part, U.S. officials were shocked to learn that USAID would fund yet another covert mission that threatens to undermine the organization’s global health and poverty-reduction programs.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-V.T. was particularly irate, claiming that using a health program for political reasons “tarnishes USAID’s long track record as a leader in global health.”
Similarly, InterAction—an umbrella group that encompasses a variety of aid-based organizations—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.”
Senior fellow at the Center for Global Development Charles Kenny predicts that the incident will incite greater suspicion in U.S. programs in countries who already do not trust America. Often times, those are the places where health programs are the most essential, so this latest USAID fumble may compromise vital health and poverty-reduction programs around the world.
However, the reaction has not been unanimously negative.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-F.L. supported the program wholeheartedly, saying, “We must continue to pressure the Castro regime and support the Cuban people, who are oppressed on a daily basis.”
The Obama Administration also defended the program, but denied that there were any ulterior motives.
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 Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman.
In the end, only time will tell how this latest clandestine U.S. health program will affect USAID’s global health and poverty-reduction programs. However, given the past failures of such programs, U.S. officials are beginning to question if it is really worth the risk.
– Sam Hillestad