HAVANA (AP) – A few months after President Barack Obama visited Cuba in March, a group of teenagers left the island for a month-long visit to the United States funded by the U.S. State Department.
The 16- to 18-year-olds spent 10 days learning about community service, followed by two-week homestays with families in Virginia, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Washington, Oregon and Missouri. There, the Cuban teens volunteered at food banks and recycling centers and read books to young children, according to the Washington-based NGO that organized the activities.
Now, four months before Obama leaves office, the Summer Leadership Program for Cuban Youth has provoked a full-blown backlash from the Cuban government, which has organized a nationwide series of campus protests over the past week denouncing the program as a tool of American subversion in language hearkening back to the height of the Cold War.
"University students condemn new Yankee manipulation," declared a headline in red ink above the lead story in Thursday's edition of Granma, the official Communist Party newspaper. Cuba said it complained about the program at a meeting in Washington on Friday with the U.S. diplomats negotiating normalization with Cuba.
"We insisted once again that the financing of programs aimed at provoking internal change in Cuba needs to be eliminated, which would be an essential step toward normalizing bilateral relations," Cuba's director-general of U.S. affairs, Josefina Vidal, said in a video posted as part of a question-and-answer session on Twitter.
For most of the last half-century, the U.S tried to push Fidel Castro's government toward collapse or fuel its overthrow in an anti-Communist uprising. The Obama administration abandoned that goal in favor of slowly encouraging Cubans to develop lives independent of a single-party system that, despite limited reforms, controls most aspects of life on the island, from theater programming to the distribution of agricultural supplies. The Obama goal of gradual change is supported by millions of dollars in funding for non-governmental organizations that attempt to work directly with Cubans in programs similar to U.S.-funded efforts around the world.
Cuba rejects the idea of any foreign government, above all the United States, working with Cubans independently of the government and the more than 2,000 state-run organizations that it describes as Cuba's genuine civil society. Virtually any organization operating without state approval is viewed as illegal and potentially subversive, particularly if it receives foreign aid.
Cuba says such suspicions gained credibility with the publication of reports by The Associated Press in 2014 revealing that the U.S. Agency for International Development funded clandestine programs to undermine the Cuban government, including the creation of a "Cuban Twitter" social network, the dispatch of Latin American youth to recruit activists, and attempts to coopt Cuban rappers as unknowing agents of democratic change.
"What's happening in this country is a rejection by students, by both high-schoolers and college students, of a group of subversive programs being organized by the U.S. government, with U.S. financing, with the idea of forming a group of young leaders in this country who are supposedly more democratic, who can produce social change in Cuba," said Joan Cabo Mijares, a member of the national board of the Young Communists' Union.
The $1.2 million program run by Washington-based World Learning is one of a series of U.S. programs that aim "to empower Cubans to freely determine their own future by increasing human capacity, promoting community level engagement, and expanding civil society networks," according to a 2014 request for applications from the State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. World Learning said the program received no funding from USAID, a separate agency.
Cuba's main evening news round-table dedicated its Thursday episode to the World Learning program, inviting participant Alejandro Sanchez Fernandez on to describe his experience.
"During the program they took three surveys asking us to make comparisons between Cuba and the United States, with questions like, 'What is democracy? What is the difference between dictatorship and democracy?' and others," Sanchez said. "We always thought that there could be some type of ideological subversion, but we had dreams of traveling to the United States."
World Learning is a nearly 85-year-old organization that organizes academic, cultural, and professional programs for 2,000 people from 140 countries, the organization said. It said the program ran during the summers of 2015 and 2016 and was not meant to continue beyond that.
"These programs help further World Learning's mission of creating a more peaceful and just world through education, sustainable development and exchange," the organization's President Carol Jenkins said in a written statement. "We believe that people-to-people exchanges are one of the best ways to accomplish this goal and create a world of mutual understanding."
Cuban officials said their main concern was that the NGO had directly recruited Cuban students without the government's permission. The U.S. now has diplomatic relations with Cuba and a growing set of government-to-government contacts in fields ranging from environmental protection to law enforcement.
"Once the two countries have re-established diplomatic relations, there exist official channels to request any type of exchange," said Gustavo Machin, Cuba's deputy director of U.S. affairs. "We reject the U.S. Embassy promoting programs without the consent of, and without consulting, the official channels."
The U.S. State Department did not respond for a request for comment.