August 5th, 2014 (InsideCostaRica.com) The Associated Press has learned that the United States employed young Costa Ricans and other Latin Americans on covert missions to Cuba to foster anti-government activism.
AP says that for at least two years beginning in 2009, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which oversees humanitarian aid around the world, arranged for almost a dozen travelers from Costa Rica, Venezuela and Peru to visit Cuba and identify potential targets who could bolster opposition against the communist government of Raul Castro.
Under the first administration of President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure, travelers visited college campuses, making friends and in one case using the pretext of an HIV prevention workshop to identify potential political activists. The travelers were disguised as health and social workers, as well as tourists.
Fernando Murillo was one of the Costa Rican operatives sent to Cuba. According to documents and memos obtained by the AP, his assignment was to recruit young Cubans to anti-government activism under the guise of social programs, including HIV prevention workshops.
Murillo was instructed to check in every 48 hours and was provided a set of security codes. “I have a headache,” for instance, meant the Costa Rican thought the Cubans were watching him and the mission should be suspended, according to the AP.
The travelers operation was tied to Washington-based USAID contractor Creative Associates International, which also came under AP scrutiny with an April investigation into the creation of a Cuban social media platform similar to Twitter. That program was also based out of Costa Rica and intended to stir dissent on the communist island.
Creative Associates also maintained offices in San Jose, Costa Rica, where both operations were apparently managed and based.
Murillo, 29 at the time of the operations, was the head of a Costa Rica-based human rights group called Fundacion Operacion Gaya Internacional, which had been contracted by Creative Associates.
Murillo, for his part, told the AP he was unable to discuss the details of his trips to Cuba because of a non-disclosure agreement he signed but said his only goal was to teach people how to use condoms correctly.
“I never said to a Cuban that he had to do something against the government. If that was the mission of others, I don’t know,” Murillo told the AP from San Jose. “I never told a Cuban what he had to do.”
However, the AP report notes that a six-page report provided by Murillo to his handlers at Creative Associates mentioned HIV only once, noting that it was “the perfect excuse for the treatment of the underlying theme,” and that the objective was to “generate a network of volunteers for social transformation.”
Creative Associates also employed what it referred to as ‘mules’ to carry cash from Costa Rica to groups it supported in Cuba.
One of the ‘mules’ was a childhood friend of Murillo’s, who spoke to the AP from San Jose on condition of anonymity.
“It was made clear to me that I must be careful because the money we carried was gringo,” the friend told the AP.
Creative Associates’ San Jose office was also used to train recruits, including Venezuelans, who were flown to Costa Rica for training.
Despite the risks involved, AP says some of the recruits were paid as little as $5.41 an hour – below the U.S. federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
According to some of the operatives involved, their training lasted just one week, including a 30-minute seminar on how to evade Cuba’s counter-intelligence.
USAID responded to the AP report Monday by saying it “remains committed to balancing the realities of working in closed societies … with our commitment to transparency, and we continuously balance our commitment to transparency with the need for discretion in repressive environments.”
The Costa Rican and other Latin American operatives were sent to Cuba even after the 2009 arrest of Alan Gross, an American contractor who has served five years of a 15-year sentence in a prison on the island.
Gross, now 65, was working covertly in Cuba to set up Internet access on behalf of the U.S. government.
Gross’ attorney said Monday his client’s physical and emotional health continue to deteriorate in prison.
VOA contributed to this report.