In another bungled effort to foster anti-government activism in Cuba, the United States trained young Latin Americans in San José and then sent them into Cuba to identify potential targets who could bolster opposition against the Communist government of Raúl Castro.
In addition to Costa Ricans, the dozen or so included Venezuelans and Peruvians.
According to The Associated Press, which broke the story Sunday night, the operation was tied to Washington-based government contractor Creative Associates International, which also came under scrutiny with an April Associated Press investigation into the creation of a Cuban social media platform similar to Twitter.
ZunZuneo, as the failed U.S. government-sponsored platform was called, also was designed to encourage political dissidence. The platform was run out of Sabana Sur in San José.
Creative Associates International works for the U.S. Agency for International Development, known as USAID. The Associated Press said that the missions were covert as did the young men and women involved. But USAID said in a release Monday that “This work is not secret, it is not covert, nor is it undercover. Instead, it is important to our mission to support universal values, end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies. Chief among those universal values are the right to speak freely, assemble and associate without fear, and freely elect political leaders. Sadly, the Cuban people and many others in the global community continue to be denied these basic rights.”
USAID also said that one paragraph in The Associated Press article captures the purpose of these and many civil society programs, which is to empower citizens to “tackle a community or social problem, win a ‘small victory’ and ultimately realize that they could be the masters of their own destiny.”
“But the story then goes on to make sensational claims against aid workers for supporting civil society programs and striving to give voice to these democratic aspirations. This is wrong,” USAID said..
Some of the sensationalistic claims include the revelation that the undercover agents were paid as little as $5.41 an hour for a mission that might earn them many years in a Cuban jail. One participant said that training lasted a half hour. Cuban security agents quickly picked up on the effort and asked from where the money was coming to support the travelers.
A key member of the covert team was a Costa Rican named Fernando Murillo, who operated the Fundacion Operacion Gaya Internacional in Heredia. He declined to discuss the mission with an Associated Press reporter.
The Latin American travelers were sent to Cuba even after the 2009 arrest of Alan Gross, an American contractor who has served five years of a 15-year sentence in a prison on the island.
Gross, now 65, was working covertly in Cuba to set up Internet access on behalf of the U.S. government.
One of the major criticisms of the latest project is that the effort by the U.S. agents tarnished the reputation of USAID workers all over the world. Murillo used a bogus anti-HIV prevention forum in 2010 to seek out potential local activists.
The undercover operation ended in mid-2011.
There has been no comment yet from Costa Rican officials who are likely to be unhappy because the United States used the country as a staging ground for a disruptive effort against Cuba.
There have been some comments, for and against, attributed to U.S. members of Congress.