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HAVANA (AP) – News that the U.S. government quietly contracted young Latin Americans to travel to Cuba for political purposes under the guise of health and civic programs was the talk of the town in Havana and the Cuban diaspora Monday, eliciting both criticism and praise for the secret program.
In Cuba, some who heard about it from state TV called it objectionable, if not necessarily surprising.
"I don't know what to tell you. It's one of so many imperialist aggressions, so many years that they have been trying to bring down the revolution," said Elio Morales, a 19-year-old refinery worker. "They've been trying all kinds of things for 50 years to bring down the revolution, and it hasn't fallen."
Other Cubans backed efforts by the U.S. Agency for International Development and its contractors to support civil society on the island.
"Good for USAID!" dissident writer and photographer Orlando Luis Pardo said via Twitter. "The world must foster the rights of the Cuban people, abolished by the Castro regime and their allies."
An Associated Press investigation published Monday revealed that under the Obama administration program, nearly a dozen travelers were sent undercover to Cuba to try to identify and ultimately groom a new generation of political activists.
According to one document obtained by the AP, a goal was to put "pressure" on the government. In one case, a group of visitors organized an HIV-prevention workshop described as a ruse to conceal the political nature of their work, potentially undermining USAID's credibility in critical health work around the world.
The head of an international nongovernmental organization in Cuba expressed concern that the revelations could jeopardize the work of groups that have spent years building trust with the Cuban government and local partners.
"It doesn't bode very well for programs that are funded from external sources, because I think there's going to be a higher level of scrutiny: Who's the donor? Where are the funds coming from? What does the program propose to do?" the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid damaging his group's local relationships.
"If it means that we're going to be more scrutinized and that Cuban approval processes are going to be even slower than they already are, then that's going to affect our work."
In Cuba, the early newscast showed AP video of the investigation. It included footage of two Cubans interviewed by the AP, but not audio of their comments.
"This program of traveler agents, like ZunZuneo, form part of a multimillion-dollar effort by USAID to effect change in countries that are politically inconvenient for Washington," broadcaster Cristina Escobar said.
The afternoon news also led with the story, but without commentary. Cuban authorities have not commented publicly.
Cuban-American Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart likened U.S. government efforts aimed at engaging Cuban civil society to Cold War-era attempts to promote democracy in the former Soviet Bloc.
"Efforts ... to find creative ways for the Cuban people to communicate with each other and with the outside world, are precisely the types of activities that the United States must vigorously pursue in closed societies," Diaz-Balart said in a statement.