Obama Administration Exploiting Humanitarian Missions to Push Shady Policies Abroad

The U.S. government used an HIV prevention program to try to undermine the Cuban government, a move that puts U.S.-linked health programs around the globe at risk.


The covert program was run by the US Agency for International Development. While ostensibly a U.S. government arm that spends billions of dollars around the world in development and humanitarian assistance, USAID has been repeatedly used as a front group for achieving U.S. foreign policy goals. A team of investigative journalists with the Associated Press first reported the story August 4.

What’s more, the Obama administration has used health programs as a ruse to pursue political objectives in Pakistan, making the disclosure of the Cuba program the second time in recent years the U.S. has been caught using health initiatives for motives that had little to do with keeping people healthy.

“It may have been good business for USAID's contractor, but it tarnishes USAID's long track record as a leader in global health,” Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told the AP in response to the news agency’s report on Cuba.

The program began in April 2010, when a Costa Rican named Fernando Murillo was hired by USAID contractor Creative Associates International, a Washington, D.C.-based group. He was sent to Cuba on a clandestine mission, even though he had no training as an undercover operative. In fact, another USAID contractor, Alan Gross, was arrested by the Cuban government in 2009 after he gave out communications equipment to Cubans in a “democracy promotion” effort. Gross remains in jail today.

Murillo’s ultimate assignment was to attract young Cubans to participate in activism against the Cuban government, which the U.S. has tried to overthrow as far back as 1961. Murillo and other Costa Ricans hired by Creative Associates set up a HIV prevention workshop, which he called the “perfect excuse” to recruit people who would cause trouble for the Cuban regime. Sixty Cubans showed up for a sex-ed and HIV prevention workshop. The goal, as documents obtained by the AP state, was to “generate a network of volunteers for social transformation.” If the HIV prevention program was successful in creative anti-government activists, USAID wanted to take the strategy across the island nation.

The other aspect of the program was similar in nature. USAID contractor Creative Associates hired Venezuelans and Peruvians to go to college campuses and attempt to turn disaffected students into anti-government agents.

USAID’s goals have been met. The Cuban government is still standing, and there are no large-scale protests in the Communist country. The failure of this program comes over three months after the AP revealed another failed USAID program in Cuba: the creation of a social network to organize thousands of people to protest against the Castro government. The attempts at overthrowing the government in Cuba are just the latest USAID programs meddling in Latin American politics. USAID has poured cash into Venezuela and Paraguay to try to undermine their leftist governments, whose economic and foreign policies have strayed from what the U.S. wants.

In addition to yet again exposing USAID as a tool of U.S. policy, the HIV prevention program reveals how the Obama administration is exploiting health initiatives to pursue its own goals. While the Obama administration and hardline Cuba hawks have defended the program, others in Congress disagree. “These programs are in desperate need of adult supervision. If you are using an AIDS workshop as a front for something else, that's... I don't know what to say... it's just wrong,” Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told the AP.

Public health workers are also angered by the program. As another AP article reported, InterAction, a coalition of global aid groups, said that using an HIV prevention workshop to meddle in politics was “unacceptable” and that the U.S. “should never sacrifice delivering basic health services or civic programs to advance an intelligence goal.”

But that’s exactly what the Obama administration has done, and not only in Cuba. The exploitation of a health program for intelligence purposes hit Pakistan particularly hard in recent years.

During the hunt for Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden, the CIA covertly hired Dr. Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani health worker, to run a vaccination program for hepatitis B. The end-goal was to obtain the DNA of one of bin Laden’s children in order to confirm whether bin Laden was inside a compound in Abbottabad. The Al Qaeda leader was inside the compound, and that’s where U.S. forces killed him. It’s unclear  whether Afridi or his vaccination team ever did obtain the DNA.

Despite that haziness, public anger erupted over the vaccination program. The Taliban and other radical Islamist groups went on a rampage against health workers, killing and injuring some and severely disrupting their ability to do health care work.

The consequences have been catastrophic. Since vaccination programs carry a stigma because of the CIA’s past involvement, the Pakistani people’s trust in them has declined. That, in turn, has helped fuel the rise of polio, a deadly disease that at one point was almost fully eradicated. Earlier in the year, health experts warned that polio is on the rise around the world. And the country that had the most cases, at 59, is Pakistan.

In May, the White House announced that the CIA was now barred from making “operational use of vaccination programs, which includes vaccination workers. Similarly, the agency will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programs.”

That policy of not using health programs for political purposes doesn’t yet extend to USAID’s program in Cuba. The State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said the USAID operation “enabled support for Cuban civil society, while providing a secondary benefit of addressing the desires Cubans express for information and training about HIV prevention.”

Yet as the AP reporters wrote, the program “could undermine USAID's credibility in critical health work around the world.” But the Obama administration doesn’t seem to care about the consequences of exploiting health programs for U.S. policy designs.

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