U.S. covert operation against Cuban youth condemned

Some U.S. destabilizing assaults against Cuba have become so much the norm that they are no longer news. These include economic blockade and travel restrictions. Others, however, like special covert actions, serve to restore U.S. aggression to public awareness, especially when those covert acts are exposed or when they fail.

That’s the case with yet another revelation on intrusion in Cuban affairs by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  According to a recent Associated Press (AP) story, USAID hired Creative Associates International to recruit 12 young people from Peru, Costa Rica, and Venezuela to pose as tourists in Cuba beginning in late 2009. They were to befriend young Cubans, particularly university students, and try to convert them into “change agents” and anti-government activists. Engaging with them as colleagues in “civic projects,” one an HIV-AIDS educational initiative, the visitors gained their confidence. The Cubans received money. 

The onset of the program coincided with the arrest by Cuban authorities of Alan Gross, a USAID-funded agent now jailed in Cuba after supplying dissenting Cubans with high technology communications equipment. The AP report reveals that discussions about risk of detection were ongoing between the amateur agents and their Creative Associates handlers, mainly because their indoctrination as to security precautions had been scanty. The program ended in 2011.

In a statement issued August 5, the Cuban Foreign Ministry denounced the U.S. goal of “converting young Cubans … into political actors.” The U.S. government was called upon to “once and for all cease its subversive, illegal, and covert actions against Cuba in violation of our sovereignty.” It linked the disclosures to another AP report published in April that told about the “Zunzuneo” project.

Zunzuneo was a USAID-financed initiative administered by Creative Associates that began in 2010. Its purpose was to engage Cuban young people in social messaging after having been lured through music, sports, and cultural information showing up on their cell phones. To evade Cuban detection, the “Cuban Twitter” project utilized text messages and relied upon technical support personnel in other countries. Zunzuneo was financed by funds diverted from USAID projects in Pakistan

Documents obtained by AP show plans for building a “subscriber base [of] perhaps hundreds of thousands” and collecting contact information. Eventually, “operators would introduce political content that would enable Cubans to organize “smart mobs” – mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice that might trigger a Cuban Spring.” After two years and only 40,000 Cuban enrollees, the program ended.

Cuban analyst Iroel Sánchez asks: “Will the U.S. government learn from these new failures or will its policies toward Cuba continue as a feast for the incompetent?” The revelations recall earlier U.S. interventionist initiatives put in place after predominantly military and terrorist modes of de-stabilization went out of fashion. Funneling of millions of federal dollars to oppositionists in Cuba through Florida-based private and public agencies came to very little; funds were stolen or went astray and favoritism prevailed in selecting Cuban recipients. The convictions as U.S. mercenaries in 2003 of 75 anti-government activists cast a pall over quiet U.S. interventionist attempts, mainly because of video documentation of U.S. payments shown at their trial.  

Yet manipulation of social media continues. According to close observer Tracey Eaton, “The U.S. government awarded an additional $400,000 to the Maryland company that designed and operates Piramideo, a social network aimed at sending millions of text messages to Cuba.” The Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), responsible for the U.S. Radio and TV Marti – broadcaster of propaganda to Cuba – “signed the one-year contract with Washington Software on June 20.”

The OCB, charged with shaping message content, awarded Washington Software half a million dollars in September, 2011 for a weekly output of 24,000 text messages fixed so as to evade  Cuban barriers. Since then, the contractor has received $4,321,173 from the USAID.

Editorializing, the Mexican La Jornada newspaper points out that the U.S. government, no longer wedded to coups, death squads, and invasions, now “relies upon concepts like democratic development, strengthening of civil society, and defense of human rights.” But significantly, “this destabilizing attempt occurs just when nations in the region are devising mechanisms of multi-national interaction. [Ultimately] the effect of programs like those under consideration will be to deepen the superpower’s isolation in the region.” It seems that “Washington, far from being a guarantor of international legality, democracy, and human rights has switched to being a systematic, habitual violator of such principles.” 

In Washington Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee that oversees the USAID budget characterized the recently disclosed scheme as “worse than irresponsible.” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus,” indicated: “”I am appalled by recent reports that the U.S. government orchestrated and funded clandestine democracy promotion efforts under the guise of public health and civic programs.”

Although President Obama in November, 2013  lectured right- wing blockade apologists in Miami on outmoded U.S policies on Cuba, he’s silent on the current debacle. The same goes with ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who recently called for “normalizing relations eventually,” and Democratic candidate for governor of Florida Charlie Crist who condemns the blockade

Photo: In this July 11 photo, Manuel Barbosa, 25, shows the logo of his “Revolution” audiovisual project during an interview with The Associated Press in Santa Clara, Cuba. Fernando Murillo contacted Barbosa, a founder of the group, while working on a clandestine operation that dispatched Latin American youth to Cuba under the cover of health and civic programs to provoke unrest. Barbosa said he was initially open to collaboration with the foreigners but was never told they were working for the U.S. “They presented themselves as a non-governmental organization,” Barbosa said. Franklin Reyes/AP



W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.