WASHINGTON — An Obama administration program secretly dispatched young Latin Americans to Cuba using the cover of health and civic programs to provoke political change, a clandestine operation that put those foreigners in danger even after a US contractor was hauled away to a Cuban jail.
Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the US Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican, and Peruvian young people to Cuba in hopes of stoking rebellion.
The travelers worked undercover, often posing as tourists, and traveled around the island scouting for people they could turn into political activists.
Fernando Murillo was typical of the young Latin Americans deployed to Cuba. He had little training in the dangers of clandestine operations — or how to evade one of the world’s most sophisticated counterintelligence services.
Murillo was instructed to check in every 48 hours and was provided with a set of security codes. ‘‘I have a headache,’’ for instance, meant the Costa Rican thought the Cubans were watching him and the mission should be suspended.
The danger of the program was apparent to USAID, if not to the young operatives: A USAID contractor, American Alan Gross, was arrested on a charge of smuggling in sensitive technology. He is still in jail.
USAID hired Creative Associates International, a Washington-based company, as part of a civil society program against Cuba’s communist government. The same company was central to the creation of a ‘‘Cuban Twitter’’ — a messaging network revealed in April by the Associated Press, designed to reach hundreds of thousands of Cubans.
According to internal documents obtained by the AP and interviews in six countries, USAID’s young operatives posed as tourists, visited college campuses, and used a ruse that could undermine USAID’s credibility in critical health work around the world: an HIV-prevention workshop one called the ‘‘perfect excuse’’ to recruit political activists, according to a report by Murillo’s group. For all the risks, some travelers were paid as little as $5.41 an hour.
The travelers program was launched during a time when newly inaugurated President Obama spoke about a ‘‘new beginning’’ with Cuba after decades of mistrust, raising questions about whether the White House had a coherent policy toward the island nation.
There’s no evidence that the program advanced the mission to create a pro-democracy movement against the government of Raul Castro. Creative Associates declined to comment, referring questions to USAID.
USAID would not say how much the Costa Rica-based program cost. In response to questions from the AP, the agency issued a statement that said, ‘‘USAID and the Obama administration are committed to supporting the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their own future. USAID works with independent youth groups in Cuba on community service projects, public health, the arts and other opportunities to engage publicly, consistent with democracy programs worldwide.’’
But the AP investigation revealed an operation that often teetered on disaster. Cuban authorities questioned who was bankrolling the travelers. The young workers came dangerously close to blowing their mission to ‘‘identify potential social-change actors.’’ And there was no safety net for the inexperienced travelers, who were doing work that was explicitly illegal in Cuba.
After Gross was arrested, USAID privately told contractors that they should consider suspending travel to Cuba, according to e-mails obtained by the AP. ‘‘We value your safety,’’ one senior USAID official said in an e-mail, less than a week after Gross was seized.
‘‘The guidance applies to ALL travelers to the island, not just American citizens,’’ another official wrote.
Contractor Still in Jail
Yet four months later, in April 2010, Murillo was sent to Havana.
Murillo, then 29, was the charismatic head of a human-rights group in Costa Rica called Fundacion Operacion Gaya Internacional, which had been contracted by Creative Associates to turn Cuba’s apathetic young people into effective political actors.
Murillo headed to Santa Clara, three hours from Havana, where he connected with a cultural group that called itself ‘‘Revolution,’’ a modest outfit of artists devoted to electronic music and video. Months later, in November 2010, an HIV workshop drew 60 people. The workshop was supposed to offer straightforward education for HIV prevention.
But the ulterior motive, documents show, was to use the workshop as a recruiting ground for young people by showing them how to organize themselves.
Reached in San Jose, Costa Rica, Murillo said he could not speak about the details of his Cuba trips because he had signed a nondisclosure agreement.