Caracas, 5th August 2014 (Venezuelanalysis.com)A program overseen by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) sent almost a dozen youth to Cuba from Costa Rica, Venezuela, and Peru, with the goal of rousing opposition against the Cuban government, an Associated Press (AP) investigation revealed earlier this week.
USAID initiated the program shortly after the inauguration of US President Barack Obama in 2008, when the president spoke publically of a “new beginning” in US-Cuban relations. It was based in Costa Rica, and run through Creative Associates International, a US company hired by USAID which was recently linked to the creation of a “Cuban Twitter,” a network aimed at connecting Cubans to promote “democracy”.
The AP report detailed how the contracted youth – some of whom were paid $5.41 per hour for their efforts – often posed as tourists, visiting college campuses and attempting to organize Cuban youth for political activism.
In the most prominent case, at a university in Santa Clara, a workshop on HIV prevention provided a “perfect excuse” to recruit activists.
When asked about the program, USAID said that “Cubans expressed a desire for information and training about HIV prevention, and the workshop helped to address their needs”. The organization, an arm of the U.S. government, annually distributes US$3 billion to HIV prevention programs, which it claims have aided millions of citizens in over 100 countries.
But the documents surrounding the Cuban program, obtained by the AP, spoke of an “underlying theme” in addition to its more benign motives, including the objective of creating “a network of volunteers for social transformation”.
According to the report, Creative Associates first made inroads with Venezuelan youth by contracting with then 22-year-old lawyer Zaimar Castillo, who directed the NGO Renova, in late 2009. Yajaira Andrande, an administrator at Renova, said that she and other members of Renova were flown to Costa Rica for training.
"They gave us a week of classes, teaching us what we were going to do and how we were going to do it," Andrande told AP.
In April 2010, three Renova associates traveled to Cuba, where they visited universities in two cities and met the families of various students. Their cover, according to the AP, was that they were “visiting Cuban friends”.
In an account of the trip, the associates profiled potential recruits, identifying a “target group” of 30 citizens who allegedly both opposed the government and possessed the sufficient organizational skills to rebel against the government.
According to Hector Baranda, one of the Cubans rated highly by the Venezuelan report, the Renova associates might have read too far into his routine complaints.
“A Cuban always says 'aggggh,' whether (the problems are) big or small," he told AP.
Andrade noted that the Renova workers took special care in concealing their plans from the Venezuelan government, one of Cuba’s closest allies.
"We worked it so that the government here didn't know we were traveling to Cuba and helping these groups," Andrade said. "Because that was when [late President Hugo] Chavez was in power, and if he had known about us — that some Venezuelans were working to stir rebellion — we would have been thrown in jail." Andrade did not state under which law they would have been “throw in jail”, nor did she provide examples when that has happened under the current government.
The head of Renova, Zaimar Castillo, declined to be interviewed, and scant information exists on the NGO. But various newsletters from universities and youth organizations during 2008 and 2009 consulted by Venezuelanalysis.com, speak of a young lawyer, Zaimar Castillo Carvajal, who directed an NGO organizing young professionals and communities throughout Venezuela and who traveled internationally to participate in conferences focused on “democracy and human rights”.
In an interview published in a November 2009 World Youth Movement for Democracy newsletter, Castillo said, “I have been confronted by political persecutions, undertaken by the national [Venezuelan] government, when I defend democracy, when I travel for personal growth or when I meet with other students; I am signaled as an imperialist or as paid by the CIA.” She went on to describe her efforts to combat Chavez’s “totalitarian and dictatorial” regime.
The AP report claimed that the operation remained precarious from the beginning. The Cuban government considers any USAID activity aimed at promoting democracy as subversive, and officials soon became suspicious of where the youth received their funding.
When one member of Creative Associates failed to deliver pay to associates in Cuba in June 2011, the project was abandoned.
On Monday, the Obama administration praised the program. According to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, it “enabled support for Cuban civil society, while providing a secondary benefit of addressing the desires Cubans express for information and training about HIV prevention.”