The US State Department is in a fix. It confronts an intransigent foreign government. The long-standing policy aim is regime change. Past attempts at assassination, sponsoring an armed invasion, allowing dissident groups to blow up an airliner, hotels and discotheques, have all failed. Economic sanctions seemed to have strengthened not weakened the regime. US agents are now closely watched and when they’re caught get heavy jail sentences. What should it try next? Someone has an idea: we’ll recruit and train young agents from third countries; they’ll be more difficult to identify; we’ll send them in as tourists; they’ll contact potential dissidents and foment rebellion; we’ll pay them $5.41 per hour…
This seems like the reasoning behind one of the most recent US attempts to export democracy to Cuba. In 2010 and 2011, a dozen young people from Costa Rica, Peru and Venezuela were sent to Cuba to carry it out. Even by the past standards of USAID, the body that devises them, the scheme looks particularly inept.
The leader was Fernando Murillo from a Costa Rican body called Operation Gaya International Foundation. He was there for several months. He made contact with a youth organisation in Santa Clara called Revolution and with them organised a workshop on HIV prevention. It was attended by 60 people who, unknowingly, were Murillo’s potential recruits. It turned out that among them was a state security officer, identified to Murillo by the other participants. According to the documents leaked to Associated Press and which implicate Murillo, this should have triggered a coded message back to his minders that he ‘had a headache’, which really meant ‘I’m being watched’.
USAID’s contractors were Washington-based Creative Associates International (CREA). A full year before the HIV seminar took place, they’d received urgent guidance from USAID to reassess whether to send new agents to the island. A follow-up message made clear the warning also applied to non-Americans. This was because another USAID agent, Alan Gross, had been arrested. (He’s now been banged up in a Cuban prison for five years.)
Not only did CREA appear to ignore this but their precautions when the agents were inevitably identified were comically inadequate. The response to Murillo signalling that he was being watched might have been ‘your sister is ill’ (‘it’s time to get out’). But even if the sister had fallen ill, there was no escape route in place, the young agents were merely advised to ‘continue acting like just another tourist, play the fool and pretend you don’t know why you’re being questioned’.
Gaya International Foundation put out a lengthy denial that Murillo was involved in anything subversive, claiming his HIV work was genuine. Why then was he told not to tell anyone that his sponsor was USAID? When AP interviewed several Cubans who’d been contacted and befriended by Murillo, one said that as soon as he realised USAID was involved he’d pulled out. Because of its subversion programmes, it has long been a contaminated brand not just in Cuba but in much of Latin America. This participant and others interviewed said they felt betrayed by someone they’d grown to trust.
AP went to Venezuela to track down a number of the young agents who worked with Murillo. They talk about the programme’s real aims, the meagre training and how much they were paid. None had realised until later what enormous risks they’d been taking. AP also pursued the woman alleged to be the organiser of the Venezuelan group, now living in Dublin. All they got was a brief video of her beating a hasty retreat into the house when they door-stepped her.
USAID itself seems proud of the programme. Last year it spent another $9 million on promoting democracy in Cuba. Creative Associates is still named as one of its agents, although in 2013 it earned a measly $171,000. Strangely, Creative Associates’ own website carries no mention of its Cuba programmes, although it lists what it does in various continents. Perhaps the reluctance is understandable. It was recently outed as running another loony scheme for USAID. It set up a Cuban version of Twitter called ZunZuneo, again aimed at fomenting rebellion, and also run from Costa Rica.
None of these schemes achieve anything other than putting at risk the agents and those they recruit. Worse, in this case by misusing an HIV prevention initiative (a ‘success story’ according to CREA) they undermine their own genuine aid programmes. They make the US look pathetic and the Cuban government appears to rumble most of the stunts anyway. Apart from USAID, the only ones satisfied by the latest episode are the eight journalists. Earlier this month they split the prize for AP’s worldwide ‘beat of the week’: $500.