WASHINGTON (AP) – Public health advocates and U.S. lawmakers are highly critical of the Obama administration's use of an HIV-prevention workshop in Cuba for political purposes, saying such clandestine efforts put health programs at risk around the world and put people in danger.
The program, 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. An Associated Press investigation found the operation put the foreigners in danger not long after an American contractor was arrested in Cuba for doing secretive work.
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 to promote a political agenda.
Meanwhile, InterAction, an alliance of global non-governmental aid groups, said the use of an HIV workshop for intelligence purposes was "unacceptable." The U.S. government, it said, "should never sacrifice delivering basic health services or civic programs to advance an intelligence goal."
The Obama administration on Monday 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. 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."
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.
In April, Leahy called the ZunZuneo program "dumb, dumb, dumb." But on Monday, not all lawmakers were critical.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Creative Associates declined to comment, referring questions to USAID.
"All governments need to make trade-offs, for example, between civil liberties and public safety," said Les Roberts, a professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. In the case of Cuba, he said, there is a trade-off between conducting neutral development efforts and "the political goal of regime change in Cuba."
"Without the appearance of neutrality," he said, "few things USAID wants to do internationally can be achieved."
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.
To evade the Cuban government, travelers installed innocent-looking content on their laptops to mask sensitive information. They used encrypted memory sticks to hide their files and sent obviously encrypted emails using a system that might have drawn suspicion.
Both the travelers program and ZunZuneo 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' project was funded under the same pot of federal money that paid for ZunZuneo. But USAID has yet to provide the AP with a complete copy of the Cuban contracts despite a Freedom of Information Act request filed more than three months ago.