THE BLOG
08/05/2014 12:17 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2014

The Maxwell Smarts of USAID Are at It Again in Cuba

Those of us of a certain age will remember secret agent Maxwell Smart (who was anything but), the bumbling TV spy who, while battling KAOS, spread chaos wherever he went. Well, the Maxwell Smarts at USAID are at it again. They just aren't as funny.

Four months after the Associated Press uncovered USAID's secret attempt to create ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like instant messaging service created to send subversive messages to Cuban users, AP has blown the cover on yet another covert USAID operation in Cuba.

The latest revelation concerns an on-the-ground program aimed at generating political dissent. Latin American youth were recruited by contractor Creative Associates to travel to Cuba to win the trust of Cuban youth by pretending to offer a health promotion program focusing on HIV/AIDS prevention.

Never mind that Cuba already has the best HIV/AIDS prevention program and the lowest incidence rate in Latin America. Or that everywhere else in the world, USAID's laudable work on HIV/AIDS is conducted openly in partnership with the host government. The program is Cuba is obviously not about HIV/AIDS at all. That was just the cover story -- "the perfect excuse," as one of the program documents called it -- for the real goal of recruiting "potential social change actors."

And yet when AP blew the cover on the phony health program, USAID's response was to stick by the ridiculous claim that it was just trying to help Cubans tackle a "community or social problem." USAID decried the AP story's "sensational claims" about the program's subversive intent, declaring flatly, "This is wrong," but without actually denying any factual assertion in the piece.

This just the sort of Washington dissembling that makes everyone outside the beltway distrust their government and everyone outside the United States suspect that Peace Corps volunteers, U.S. journalists, and health workers giving polio vaccinations in Pakistan may be CIA agents.

The USAID statement also insisted that the program "is not secret, it is not covert, nor is it under cover," when by the common sense meaning of those terms (and by the legal definition of covert) it is obviously all of those things. According to the AP story, the operatives on the ground spoke to each other in code to avoid detection. They encrypted their computers. They concealed their real purpose from the Cubans they worked with and befriended, just as Alan Gross did on his USAID funded project. They even recruited their relatives to act as unwitting mules, bringing USAID money into Cuba, in violation of Cuban law. The only wonder is that they aren't all are sitting in jail cells next to Mr. Gross.

USAID's Cuba democracy programs have demonstrated a clear pattern of knowingly putting innocent people at serious legal risk in Cuba by involving them in subversive activity without their knowledge. That is morally reprehensible, indefensible, and sufficient reason by itself to de-fund these programs once and for all.

The other clear pattern these programs exhibit is comical incompetence worthy of the Keystone Cops. To be fair, though, it isn't really USAID's fault. After all, they aren't an intelligence agency, they're just playing at being one. The problem is, unlike Maxwell Smart, they aren't on TV.

Coming soon! Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana by William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh.

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