USAID in Cuba: The Latest U.S. Program to Create Political Dissent

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Author: Taylor Clark

The Associated Press published a report earlier this week uncovering a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program, now known as the “Travelers Project,” that recruited youths from Peru, Venezuela, and Costa Rica from 2009 through 2012 to run and participate in civic programs in Cuba while secretly stirring up anti-government activism. The most notable of the projects organized by the USAID contractors was an HIV/AIDS prevention clinic that was dually used to scout possible anti-Castro youth organizers. According to USAID documents, the HIV program was described as a “perfect excuse” to recruit political activists. Under the “Travelers Project,” the USAID directed agents to act as tourists, socialize on college campuses, and hold various gatherings in order to profile and organize potential dissident youth leaders.

USAID contractor Creative Associates International was used to organize and execute the project. This group also served as an integral part of the controversial ZunZuneo or “Cuban Twitter” program, which sent political propaganda to cell phone users in Cuba under the guise of providing access to a social media system. In the Travelers Project, “travelers” from various Latin American nations were given brief training on how to avoid Cuban authorities and were taught how to use certain coded messages to communicate with each other. Some of these agents were compensated as little as $5.41 per hour. Creative Associates instructed the youths on how to behave if they were caught and questioned by Cuban authorities, directing them to immediately call their embassy and never mention the Creative Associates group. 

This effort by USAID to promote democracy in Cuba has been widely criticized since being made public. Not only have these clandestine operations reflected poorly on the intentions of the United States in Cuba, but they also undermine any credibility that USAID has in the arena of global healthcare. NGOs concerned with international healthcare and health education are chastising the USAID operation for jeopardizing legitimate public health programs in other nations. Senator Patrick Leahy criticized the operation, stating:

“It is one thing to support nascent Cuban civil society organizations, if USAID’s role is disclosed in advance to participants and beneficiaries. It is quite another to concoct an HIV/AIDS workshop to promote a political agenda. If that is what happened here it is worse than irresponsible.

In a press briefing on August 4th, State Department spokesperson, Jen Psaki was asked to justify the use of an HIV prevention workshop as a cover for political actions:

QUESTION: But the contractor said in the documents that this – they called it the perfect excuse for recruiting activists for a political program. Is that okay?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think – again, I think it’s important to take a step back here about the kind of programs we do around the world, which again, as you may be aware but I think others aren’t, is – are programs that we inform Congress of. The Congress is aware of our efforts to promote everything from civil society engagement to engagement in countries where people don’t have the benefit of open society as is they – as in a place like Cuba. There was a secondary benefit here which was providing information about these programs.

The State Department went on to deny any covert intentions of the program and claimed that any secretiveness was to protect participants involved in the program.
Josefina Vidal, a top diplomatic official in Havana, responded to the Associated Press exposé by denouncing continued attempts by the United States to destabilize the Cuban Government and requesting that the U.S. Government “cease, once and for all, all its subversive, illegal and covert actions against Cuba.”

Programs like this greatly hamper efforts to restore relations between the United States and Cuba. The “Travelers Project” not only delegitimizes global healthcare programs, but erodes trust in the U.S. Government both abroad and at home. This program has cost the United States a considerable amount of money and credibility and is a great setback to productive and respectful engagement with Cuba.