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Secret US effort in Cuba hurts aid work: officials

WASHINGTON--A U.S. program in Cuba that secretly used an HIV-prevention workshop for political activism was criticized Monday by international public health officials and members of Congress who said such clandestine efforts put health programs at risk around the world.

Beginning in late 2009, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) deployed nearly a dozen young people from Latin America to Cuba to recruit political activists, an Associated Press investigation found. The operation put the foreigners in danger not long after a U.S. contractor was hauled away to a Cuban jail.

Sen. Patrick Leahy said Monday it would be “worse than irresponsible” if USAID “concocted” an HIV-prevention workshop to promote a political agenda.

And InterAction, an alliance of global nongovernmental aid groups, said, “The use of an HIV workshop for intelligence purposes is unacceptable. The U.S. government should never sacrifice delivering basic health services or civic programs to advance an intelligence goal.”

The Obama administration defended its use of the HIV-prevention workshop for its Cuban democracy-promotion efforts but disputed that the project was a front for political purposes. The program “enabled support for Cuban civil society, while providing a secondary benefit of addressing the desires Cubans express for information and training about HIV prevention,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Documents and interviews make clear that the program was aimed at recruiting a younger generation of opponents to Cuba's Castro government. It is illegal in Cuba to work with foreign democracy-building programs. Documents prepared for the USAID-sponsored program called the HIV workshop the “perfect excuse” to conduct political activity.

Leahy, who is chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees USAID, said in response to the AP's findings: “It may have been good business for USAID's contractor, but it tarnishes USAID's long track record as a leader in global health.”

The White House is still facing questions about a once-secret “Cuban Twitter” project, known as ZunZuneo. That program, launched by USAID in 2009 and uncovered by the AP in April, established a primitive social media network under the noses of Cuban officials. USAID's inspector general is investigating it.

In April, Leahy called the ZunZuneo program “dumb, dumb, dumb.”

But on Monday, not all lawmakers were critical. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said USAID's programs were important for human rights in Cuba. “We must continue to pressure the Castro regime and support the Cuban people, who are oppressed on a daily basis,” said Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban native and vocal supporter of pro-democracy programs there.

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