August 4, 2014 at 10:54 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
USAID reportedly sought to undermine Cuban government through HIV workshop

Mariela Castro, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Mariela Castro has been credited with spearheading the Cuban government’s efforts to reduce HIV/AIDS rates in the Communist country. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Reports indicate a U.S. agency hired young men from several Latin American countries to covertly undermine the Cuban government through an HIV prevention workshop and other means.

The Associated Press on Monday reported the U.S. Agency for International Development hired nearly a dozen men from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Perú who traveled to the Communist country in 2009 and 2010. The news agency said the agency hired Creative Associates International, a D.C.-based organization, to help develop and implement the clandestine effort against Cuban President Raúl Castro’s government.

Fernando Murillo, a 29-year-old Costa Rican human rights advocate, told the AP that Creative Associates tapped his organization to turn what the news agency described as “Cuba’s apathetic young people into effective political actors.”

Murillo told the AP that he initially met with a group of Cuban artists in the city of Santa Clara before a state security officer identified as Carlos Pozo became suspicious of his activities. The Costa Rican human rights advocate said he decided to hold an HIV prevention workshop that Cuban officials would allow to take place.

The AP said Pozo is among the 60 people who attended the workshop in November 2010 that was to have focused on how to properly use a condom and other topics related to the prevention of HIV.

“I never said to a Cuban that he had to do something against the government,” Murillo told the AP from Costa Rica. “If that was the mission of others, I don’t know. I never told a Cuban what he had to do.”

The AP reported a six-page report that Murillo sent to Creative Associates had only one reference to HIV, noting the workshop was “the perfect excuse for the treatment of the underlying theme.” The news agency noted the document also said the gathering was meant to “generate a network of volunteers for social transformation.”

USAID spokesperson Matt Herrick on Monday issued a statement in response to the AP story.

“The United States has a long history of confronting human rights abuses, connecting the oppressed to the outside world, and helping people have a say in how they are governed,” he said. “Within repressive environments such as Cuba, civil society and development practitioners alike are often subject to abuse, harassment, threats, verbal defamation, and unjustifiable prosecution and imprisonment. In these environments, USAID works with our implementing partners to ensure they are able to perform their work safely.”

Herrick also dismissed portions of the story.

“One paragraph in the 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,’” he said. “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.”

Cuba’s human rights record continues to come under scrutiny in spite of pro-LGBT efforts that supporters of Mariela Castro, daughter of the Cuban president who is the director of the country’s National Center for Sexual Education, maintain she has spearheaded.

They note Cuba’s condom distribution campaign and sexual education curriculum have produced one of the world’s lowest HIV rates.

Neither Mariela Castro nor the Cuban government responded to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on the AP story.

“I am appalled by recent reports that the U.S. government orchestrated and funded clandestine democracy promotion efforts under the guise of public health and civic programs,” said California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who co-chairs the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, in a statement. “I am particularly concerned by the revelation that HIV-prevention programs were used as a cover. This blatant deception undermines U.S. credibility abroad and endangers U.S. government supported public health programs, which have saved millions of lives in recent years around the world.”

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a Cuban-born Republican who represents portions of South Florida where large numbers of Cuban exiles live, said in a statement the “fact that USAID is using measures to promote democracy in Cuba is no secret.”

“We must continue to pressure the Castro regime and support the Cuban people, who are oppressed on a daily basis,” she said. “ I wish the press would dedicate more of their time to reporting the rampant human rights abuses in Cuba perpetrated by the Castro regime instead of manipulating the coverage of programs promoting freedom of expression and justice on the island.”

Ignacio Estrada Cepero, founder of the Cuban League Against AIDS who frequently criticizes Raúl and Mariela Castro, echoed Ros-Lehtinen.

“All the initiatives that are undertaken to spur changes in Cuba have my backing,” he told the Blade from Miami where he and his wife, Wendy Iriepa Díaz, a transgender woman who once worked for CENESEX, currently live.

The AP report is the second time in less than a year that a covert USAID initiative designed to undermine the Cuban government has come to light.

The news wire in April reported the agency created the so-called “Cuban Twitter” social media network — ZunZuneo, which is named after the word for a hummingbird’s call in Cuban Spanish slang — that sought to undermine the Castro regime.

USAID hired Creative Associates to implement the program that ran from 2010 to 2012.

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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