The United States government secretly sent young people from across Latin America to Cuba to undermine the government, the Associated Press reported Monday. These operatives were given little training and paid badly, despite a real risk of arrest and prison, and attempted to recruit young Cubans through civic programs, including an HIV prevention workshop.
The choice of a U.S.-sponsored HIV workshop in Cuba is an interesting one, since Cuba’s HIV infection rate is one of the lowest in the world, and one-sixth that of the U.S. But it appears the disease was not necessarily the focus of the workshop, which was attended by 60 people. Fernando Murillo, after returning from Cuba, put together a report detailing his activities for Creative Associates, the USAID contractor hired to work against Cuba’s government. His only mention of HIV says it was “the perfect excuse for the treatment of the underlying theme,” meaning anti-government organizing.
In a press release, Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) blasted the program. “As co-chair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, I am particularly concerned by the revelation that HIV-prevention programs were used as a cover,” she said. “This blatant deception undermines U.S. credibility abroad and endangers U.S. government supported public health programs which have saved millions of lives in recent years around the world.”
Creative Associates is the same contractor that developed the ‘Cuban Twitter’ site ZunZuneo for USAID and the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), also uncovered by the Associated Press earlier this year, and also intended to undermine the Cuban government. The intention was to build up a subscriber base while keeping the network’s U.S. government affiliation a secret, allowing the program to collect information that could aid in encouraging anti-government activity, and eventually using the network to call for mass protests. It never got beyond some data collection and light political content before its funding ran out and it shut down in mid-2012. So ZunZuneo’s only political accomplishment was exposing its 40,000 users to potential monitoring from the Cuban government.
This week’s revelation is just the latest case of health work being used for covert ops. A fake polio vaccination program run by the CIA during the search for Osama Bin Laden collected DNA to try to determine his location. After giving out the first of three doses of vaccine in a poor neighborhood, the doctor, apparently having collected the necessary information, moved on and left treatment incomplete. Pakistan is one of the few nations in the world still dealing with polio, about one hundred cases so far this year, and vaccination is key to its eradication.
After the CIA program was revealed, a wave of violence broke out against health workers providing vaccines in Pakistan, killing at least a dozen. New levels of distrust for health programs may be playing a part in the increase of polio cases in Pakistan, up to 104 so far in 2014, after 91 in 2013, and 58 the year before.
A year after 12 deans of the top public health schools in the U.S. wrote a letter to President Obama to condemn the program, the White House responded by saying the vaccination program would never again be used to gather intelligence.
Cuba isn’t the only Latin American country whose government has been targeted by U.S. development programs. An analysis of Wikileaks cables by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found evidence of USAID efforts to undermine democratically-elected governments in Bolivia, Venezuela, and Haiti. One cable said that in Venezuela’s 2009 protests, all the protest leaders received funding from USAID contractor Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI). In a 2006 cable, USAID/OTI partners took credit for shutting down a Venezuelan city.
For these reasons, the rest of the world has been increasingly distrustful of U.S. development efforts. Bolivia has kicked USAID out of the country for refusing to disclose what they’re funding, Russia kicked them out after Putin blamed U.S. organizations for inciting protests against his re-election, and Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary accused USAID of trying to “topple” the government.