South American Youths Dispatched to Cuba to Incite a Pro-American Revolt

Cuba's president Raul Castro, center, arrives for an event marking the 1953 assault on the Moncada military barracks in Artemisa province, near Havana, on July 26, 2014. Jorge Luis Bano/Reuters

A covert U.S. government project sent young people from Latin America to attempt to incite a political rebellion in communist Cuba, an Associated Press investigation has revealed.

The initiative, which echoes the “Bay of Pigs” attempt in 1962 to overthrow the communist regime of Fidel Castro by force, was instigated by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and contractor Creative Associates International, which sent around a dozen young adults from Peru, Venezuela and Costa Rica to Cuba, where their job was to search for sympathetic Cubans to convert into pro-U.S. political activists.

The young workers, who were paid $5.14 an hour, operated under the guise of tourism and health workers. This subterfuge included the founding of an HIV-prevention workshop the workers formed, which was seen as “‘the perfect excuse’ for the program’s political goals,” AP reports.

Hector Baranda, a college student in Cuba at the time, expressed surprise to the AP that the group of Venezuelans he befriended were secretly working for the U.S. government. “How would you feel if you offered your sincere friendship and received this kind of news?” Baranda, who was befriended by the group, asked AP.

The undercover operation began in October 2009 and continued even after Alan Gross, a U.S. subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), was detained and imprisoned in Cuba for 15 years for bringing satellite communications equipment into the country.

Gross, who has become deeply depressed, according to his lawyer, Scott Gilbert, recently said goodbye to his wife, Judy Gross, and his younger of two daughters, both in their twenties, and has expressed his wish to die in the Havana prison where he has been held for four years.

Cuban officials are said to have become suspicious over who was paying for the workers. Despite the dangerous and high-risk work, project workers were only given brief safety instructions in case of discovery.

Although there is never total certainty, trust that the authorities will not try to harm you physically, only frighten you… Remember that the Cuban government prefers to avoid negative media reports abroad, so a beaten foreigner is not convenient for them,” advised a USAID memo obtained by the AP.

The secret project was funded by the same source that set up an ill-fated Cuban Twitter program, which was also charged with trying to encourage young Cubans to take up pro-American political activities. Dubbed ZunZuneo, the project, also launched in 2009, lasted for more than two years.

The Associated Press exposed that project earlier this year after obtaining more than 1,000 pages of documents and speaking to multiple people involved in the project. Al Jazeera also obtained a document showing a 2008 contract between Creative Associates International and the United States Agency for International Development.

Creative Associates International were also involved and the project was intended to grow slowly to avoid detection by Cuban officials before it reached a sufficient critical mass capable to trigger anti-Castro protests, AP reports.

USAID has denied the charge and released a statement accusing the AP of publishing “sensationalist” claims against their workers, who, the organization maintained, were working towards “supporting civil society programs and striving to give voice to these democratic aspirations.”