By Rebecca Shabad - 08/04/14 08:45 AM EDT
The Obama administration secretly sent young people from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico undercover to Cuba in an effort to provoke political change against its communist government, according to a report published Monday by The Associated Press.
According to interviews in six countries and internal documents, the AP discovered the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) dispatched nearly a dozen young Latin youth to Cuba who posed as tourists. They were paid as little as $5.41 an hour, the report said, and visited college campuses to recruit anti-government activists.
The young people used civic programs, including an HIV prevention workshop, to conduct the mission, the report said. Innocent-looking content was also installed on their laptops to disguise sensitive information they were carrying.
USAID didn’t deny the operation in a statement Monday and explained Congress funds “democracy programming in Cuba to empower Cubans to access more information and strengthen civil society.”
“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,” USAID said.
It then criticized the AP story, saying it made “sensational claims against aid workers for supporting civil society programs and striving to give voice to these democratic aspirations. This is wrong.”
It is not clear how long the USAID program lasted or if it has completely ended. The AP reported that it started as early as 2009 and went on for at least two years.
Foreigners who were involved in the program were sometimes at risk and had little training beforehand, the AP said.
"Although there is never total certainty, trust that the authorities will not try to harm you physically, only frighten you," one memo obtained by the AP said. "Remember that the Cuban government prefers to avoid negative media reports abroad, so a beaten foreigner is not convenient for them."
Cuban authorities, however, did question who bankrolled the “tourists,” and the young workers almost blew their cover in an effort to “identify potential social-change actors.”
USAID hired Creative Associates International, based in Washington, to participate in a civil society program against the Cuban government. The firm was also involved in the “Cuban Twitter” program the AP disclosed earlier this year, in which USAID tried to promote democracy in Cuba through a messaging network.