Another USAID attack on Cuba

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Protest against USAID's earlier 'Zunzuneo' campaing aimed at destabilising Cuba

A new investigation by the Associated Press (AP) reveals yet another covert mission by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) designed to incite political unrest and undermine the Cuban revolution. Documents released in August exposed a project directed by USAID and subcontracted by Creative Associates, which recruited a dozen young people from Peru, Venezuela and Costa Rica and sent them to Cuba as travellers and tourists in order to ‘identify potential social-change actors’ and organise opposition in order to destabilise the Cuban government. Louise Gartrel reports.

As early as 2009, whilst Obama spoke of a ‘new beginning’ in US-Cuban relations, agents visited college campuses with artists and musicians, hoping to go unnoticed by the Cuban authorities. The goal was to identify politically ‘apathetic’ young people who could be taught how to organise effectively to trigger ‘regime change’. Whilst encrypted emails and memory sticks, communication codes and false biographies were used to conceal the travellers’ covert activities, AP’s exposé detailed the complete inadequacy of the project which ‘often teetered on disaster…There was no safety net for the inexperienced travellers, who were doing work that was explicitly illegal’. The project ran until July 2014 when Cuban authorities began to question who was bankrolling the travellers.

AP documents also reveal that the operatives ran HIV prevention courses in Cuba as a cover. This was described as the ‘perfect excuse’ to further the programme’s political objective of organising potential ‘dissidents’ on the island. Obama has since defended the use of HIV prevention workshops in order to promote ‘civil society’ within Cuba. Ironically, Cuba has the lowest percentage of its population infected with HIV in the Western hemisphere, lower than that of the United States. In the face of the punitive US blockade which denies essential antiretroviral medicine, Cuba has produced seven of its own anti-viral drugs and has developed a nationwide infrastructure providing nutrition, education, prevention and family care. HIV care and prevention in socialist Cuba is yet another example of its free universal health provision.

USAID’s programme of subversion

The recent traveller gambit is yet another chapter in a long saga of failed USAID plots against Cuba. In 2009 Alan Gross, a private subcontractor on a $500,000 mission to install communications equipment, satellite phones and laptops with internet access in order to promote subversion, was arrested and imprisoned by Cuban authorities. Gross was working as a mercenary for US company Development Alternatives Inc which, in 2008, won a $6m contract with USAID to ‘advance democracy’ in Cuba. In April 2014, AP exposed a fake Twitter programme ‘Zunzuneo’, set up by USAID in order to foment political opposition amongst Cuba’s youth (see FRFI 239).

This recent clandestine operation has broad regional implications for the Obama administration. Costa Rica, which has frequently supported the US, expressed its opposition to the secret use of its citizens in the covert mission, with director of intelligence Mariano Figueres stating ‘of course we’re not going to agree that our national territory be used to attack a friendly government, regardless of what ideological side you’re on...it’s a matter of sovereignty and respect... and we’re very alarmed that they used Costa Rican citizens and put them at risk.’ The ‘Zunzuneo’ program was also devised in Costa Rica, operating out of offices based in San Jose. The Costa Rican government has now launched an investigation.

Such actions have produced growing hostility to the US government and its tactics of destabilisation across Latin America. The establishment of regional integration initiatives such as ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas) and CELAC (The Community of Latin American and Caribbean states) increasingly challenge US intervention in what was once termed the US’s ‘backyard’.

European banks capitulate to blockade

These recent revelations of subversion against Cuba come as the US tightens its economic blockade. The French Bank BNP Paribas has agreed to pay a settlement fee of nearly $9 billion for ‘violating’ trade sanctions imposed by the US on Cuba, Iran, and Sudan. BNP Paribas processed around $1.75 billion worth of payments for Cuba. These transactions were performed in dollars, which prosecutors state is in direct contravention of the US embargo of the island. In an unprecedented move, the US government has also ordered a year-long ban on BNP Paribas conducting certain transactions in US dollars.

In July, the Irish Bank, one of Ireland’s biggest banks, agreed to suspend all transactions to and from Cuba under the threat of US fines and sanctions. Neither bank has broken any European rules. This coincides with fresh discussions on the EU’s common position, a consensus of economic measures against Cuba, which since 1996 has made EU relations with Cuba contingent on EU-approved reforms. Although the EU has historically backed the US, there have been recent shifts against the enforcement of the blockade as EU representatives have supported UN resolutions condemning the US’s policy against Cuba.

The national co-ordinator of Cuba Support Group Ireland, Simon McGuinness, highlights such contradictions: ‘On the one hand we have the EU voting as a single bloc against the blockade and on the other they introduced financial regulations which facilitate it.’ Up until March 2014 the blockade has cost Cuba an estimated $116.88 billion whilst the UN General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly against the blockade for 22 consecutive years.

A history of USAID destabilisation

USAID is a federal government agency which receives millions of dollars from taxpayers under the guise of distributing foreign aid and directing humanitarian projects. However, since its creation in 1961 the agency has been a tool for advancing US imperialism’s overseas interests. Regionally, USAID has specifically been implicated in the 1964 coup in Brazil, teaching torture as part of a police training programme in Uruguay in 1969, training death squads in Guatemala in the 1970s, organising paramilitaries in El Salvador in the 1960s, pouring funds into the 1991 coup in Haiti and funding mass sterilisation of indigenous people under the 1996-98 Fujimori regime in Peru. Elsewhere, USAID’s dark talons have drawn blood in Vietnam, Laos, Russia, Palestine, Ukraine and across Africa.

More recently, USAID, alongside the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), has played a central role in funding and promoting opposition in Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, countries central to the struggle for ‘socialism in the 21st century’. Following the failed US-backed 2002 coup in Venezuela, USAID has attempted to overthrow President Maduro, funding violent opposition forces and promoting media initiatives. US government agencies provided more than $14m to opposition groups in Venezuela between 2013-2014 (Counterpunch, April 2014).

In the run-up to the October Presidential election in Bolivia, USAID’s goal is to unite the political opposition, bolstering them financially. In 2008, the US embassy in Bolivia approached Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars to gather intelligence about Venezuelans and Cubans living in the country. The June 2014 appointment of attaché Peter Brennan to the US embassy in Bolivia signifies a hard-line offensive against Evo Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS) government. Brennan has been previously responsible for promoting political subversion in Cuba, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

USAID received more than $38m from the State Department in 2010 for its activities in Ecuador. Subcontractors such as the right-wing Chemonics Inc and Centre for Private Enterprise (CIPE) were hired to push forward programmes of globalisation and neo-liberalism and undermine any regional unity. One result was the failed police-led 2010 coup against President Rafael Correa and his revolutionary nationalist ‘Alianza PAIS’ government.

All these attempts have been thwarted by popular resistance as the working class, social movements, indigenous, and left forces have mobilised to defend their elected governments, taking to the streets to face down destabilisation tactics.

The exposure of the latest USAID ‘traveller’ programme in Cuba barely scratches the surface of the hidden web of imperialist manipulation in the continent. However movements for socialism have mobilised to reject the grip of neo-liberalism, demand political and economic independence, defending each gain in welfare and social justice from neo-liberal sabotage and attack.

Louise Gartrel

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 241 October/November 2014