Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Why the AP’s ‘USAID Travelers in Cuba’ Story Matters

Yesterday’s Associated Press investigation into a USAID contractor’s program that used Latin American youths to recruit Cuban dissidents does not appear to be making as big a splash as the AP’s “Cuban Twitter” story. But while this latest report may be less sensational, the AP’s revelations continue to raise some important questions about USAID-funded operations on the island.

As with the ZunZuneo report, there is a lot to sift through in the full AP write-up.  The essential details are as follows: over the course of at least two years, the USAID paid for “nearly a dozen” young pro-democracy activists from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Peru to enter Cuba posing as tourists and, in secret, attempt to identify “potential social-change actors” in the country.

The program continued even as the risks associated with the USAID funding covert actions in Cuba became apparent following the December 2009 arrest of Alan Gross. It was not until September 2010 that the contractor, Creative Associates International (CAI) -- the same firm behind ZunZuneo --decided to shift its strategy, opting instead to get exit visas for potential Cuban dissidents and provide them with training off the island.

There are at least three red flags raised by the AP investigation, listed below:

1.) Some participants used health programs like an HIV-prevention workshop as cover for outreach efforts, a move that could ultimately open up USAID’s humanitarian work around the world to heightened skepticism. This was one of the main arguments made by opponents of ZunZuneo, and many of these same critics -- like Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Rep. Barbara Lee of California -- are making the point this time around as well.  As Leahy told reporters yesterday, “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. […]It may have been good business for USAID’s contractor, but it tarnishes USAID’s long track record as a leader in global health.”

2.) It is unclear whether the program even met its political goals, or if it mixed up standard anti-government complaints with committed dissidence. This is one of the hardest-hitting points of the AP’s narrative, which notes that some of the travelers’ Cuban contacts were surprised that they had been labeled as potential dissident leaders. From the article:
"They were our friends," said Cuban Hector Baranda, who topped the Venezuelans' list of potential converts. 
He thinks the visitors may have mistaken typical Cuban griping as dissident tendencies. Cuban authorities have little tolerance for counterrevolutionary opposition, but letters to the Communist Party newspaper Granma complain regularly about unfilled potholes, uncollected garbage and Cuba's impenetrable bureaucracy.  
"A Cuban always says 'aggggh,' whether (the problems are) big or small," Baranda said.
3.) In spite of the fact that CAI contractors could have faced jail time for their work, they appear to have been given minimal security training and institutional support. If they were discovered, the youths were told simply to “maintain a calm demeanor” by remembering that “nothing that you have done during your trip is illegal, in any way, in any open and democratic society.” In the event of their arrest they were told not to discuss Creative Associates, but instead to contact their home country’s embassy, which may not have been fully briefed about the nature of their work on the island (especially in the Venezuelans’ case). As mentioned, the program continued even after the arrest of Alan Gross. Yet despite the risks, in many cases the pay was not especially high. Some participants were reportedly paid “as little as $5.41 an hour.” The youths’ lack of security experience, according to the AP, may have attracted the suspicion of Cuban officials before the program’s focus shifted to providing exit visas to dissidents.

In a statement released yesterday, USAID denied that its democracy promotion work in Cuba was improper, and accused the Associated Press of making “sensational claims against aid workers for supporting civil society programs and striving to give voice to these democratic aspirations.” The humanitarian agency said it “remains committed to balancing the realities of working in closed societies--particularly in places where we do not have a USAID mission and governments are hostile to U.S. assistance--with our commitment to transparency, and we continuously balance our commitment to transparency with the need for discretion in repressive environments.”

News Briefs
  • The AP has followed up on yesterday’s story with a collection of Cubans’ reactions to the news with reactions ranging from indignation to unconern. One anonymous head of an international NGO on the island told the news agency that he was concerned the revelation could mean that groups like his are “going to be more scrutinized and that Cuban approval processes are going to be even slower than they already are.” In any case, it certainly appears as if the AP’s revelations have provided the Cuban government with a fresh batch of anti-imperialist talking points. The ruling Communist Party organ Granma has described the program as a “subversive plot” to “manipulate Cuban youth,” and part of a long history of “unconventional warfare” against the country.
  • The AP also has an update on imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross, who has reportedly “said goodbye” to his wife and daughter during a recent visit, and has asked his family not to visit him. According to Gross’s lawyer, Gross has told him that “life in prison is not a life worth living,” and hinted that he may end his life.
  • Civil society activists in Uruguay campaigning against a popular ballot initiative to lower the age of criminal responsibility in the country to 16 from 18 -- which has the support of most Uruguayans -- received an endorsement from the United Nations yesterday. As El Observador reports, the UN system’s office in Montevideo released a letter yesterday warning that lowering the age of criminal responsibility would violate the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Uruguay is a party.
  • On Sunday, the Washington Post became the latest U.S. paper to look at routes used by Central American migrants in Mexico, noting the dangers posed by gangs and police, both of which take advantage of migrants’ vulnerable situation to demand exorbitant bribes.  The Post’s Nick Miroff goes beyond some of the recent U.S. coverage, however, in asserting that the Obama administration’s dialogue with Mexico’s leadership may be more important than his recent meetings with the presidents of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. As Miroff notes, analysts point to Mexico’s comparatively strong institutions as evidence that, unlike the Central American countries, it “may actually have the power to do something.”
  • With Brazil’s election campaign season underway, El Pais has a good roundup of scandals that have emerged in the press so far. These include claims that President Dilma Rousseff’s main challenger Aecio Neves benefited from an airport built near a family home of his in Minas Gerais using public money during his time as governor of the state.  Rousseff’s camp, for its part, is facing allegations that investigators looking into corruption in state oil company Petrobras sought to shield her from allegations of wrongdoing.
  • Judicial authorities in Brazil are moving forward with an investigation into Congressman Rodrigo Bethlem, a former right-hand man to Rio de Janiero Mayor Eduardo Paes who is accused of benefitting from a kickback scheme involving city government officials. Bethlem, who also made a name for himself as the architect of Rio’s controversial forced treatment initiative, has had his accounts frozen by a Rio court as authorities continue an investigation into videos released by his ex-wife in which he admits to receiving under-the-table payments from an NGO which had received a city contract to operate a drug treatment center for addicts to crack cocaine. The NGO, Casa Espírita Tesloo, has also had its accounts frozen, as Globo reports.
  • Following news that Salvadoran officials had arrested Spanish priest Antonio Rodriguez, who had served as an intermediary with street gangs in the country, InSight Crime’s Marguerite Cawley has an interesting analysis of the story. Noting that Rodriguez was part of a team of gang truce mediators that allegedly had U.S. government support, Cawley argues that his arrest is an indication that the administration of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren could be looking to undo the sidelining of the initial truce mediators, Raul Mijango and Bishop Fabio Colindres.
  • BBC Mundo sheds light on the unique struggles of demobilized women rebels in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), in particular those who became pregnant during their time as guerrillas and were forced by their commanders to give up their babies. Of the five women in this situation interviewed by the BBC, two have reunited with their children, while the other three are still fighting to find them.
  • When former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe took his Senate seat on July 21, Senator Ivan Cepeda of the Polo Democratico immediately made waves in the country by announcing his intention to spark a debate in the chamber over Uribe’s alleged links to paramilitary and drug trafficking groups. Cepeda, alongside former left-wing presidential candidate and Senator Clara Lopez, announced they would seek to petition the Supreme Court to study Uribe’s potential criminal ties. While a motion to debate the issue on the main Senate floor was put down by a vote last week, as La Silla Vacia reported, a debate over Uribe’s alleged shady ties will still move forward. According to El Espectador, Senate President Jose David Name has announced that the debate will take place in the Senate’s “Second Committee.” The paper notes that Uribe has said he is in favor of discussing the issue and disproving allegations of paramilitary links.