Like Alan Gross, USAID Contractors Asked Me to Work in Cuba in 2009

The email arrived in my inbox on October 13, 2009, just six weeks before Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba. A program director for the Development Research Center, one of many for-profit USAID contractors, had an innocuous-sounding query: “I am wondering if you might be interested in working with us to conduct a training, in Spanish, through our USAID funded program which is aimed at supporting independent civil society in Latin America. We would like to conduct a training in the next 4-6 months, focused on global non-violent movements, tools and techniques.”   

I had given workshops on civil disobedience and social movements in Spanish in the US, Mexico and Colombia through my work with Training for Change, which has been a resource for activists on five continents for over two decades. But the phrase “USAID funded” set off alarm bells, given the agency’s history of propping up US-friendly dictatorships in countries like Guatemala, Brazil, Haiti and Indonesia, where President Obama’s mother Stanley Ann Dunham worked for a USAID contractor that was invited into the country after the ascendance of General Suharto.

A follow-up phone call revealed that DRC had been awarded a $500,000 contract the previous year to conduct activities "designed to contribute in reinforcing the development of conditions necessary for a peaceful and orderly democratic transition in Cuba," according to the Scope of Work sent to me.

This document specifies that my training should “help organize/mobilize NGOs/CBOs so they can obtain support from the general masses. The immediate objective is to teach and train Cubans to work effectively together to foster change. Leaders need to learn how to build trust amongst each other and with the masses and how to resolve conflict when disagreements arise. Furthermore, leaders need to be empowered with tools and techniques to further promote their causes.”

They wanted the training to take place that December, to take advantage of interest in the “Ladies in White” protests that had been building on the island.

My contact at the Development Research Center explained on the phone that they were actively supporting a loose collective of pro-free-market civil society organizations, which had become bogged down with internal conflict. Their hope was that this training would build unity among organizations, in addition to giving them skills to foment nonviolent, pro-capitalist revolution. That the ideals of these organizations lined up with the US government’s hopes for the island was clearly important; they weren’t trying to recruit me to offer a training to reform-minded communists.

This isn’t unusual for USAID contractors. In the last decade alone USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives has provided funding to opponents of presidents antagonistic to the United States in BoliviaVenezuela and Haiti, where the millions in USAID funding was distributed to opponents of Jean-Baptiste Aristide after his reelection. Just this year, journalists have revealed a covert, USAID-funded program to create a “Cuban Twitter” for fanning the flames of opposition to the Castro regime, and another secret initiative to recruit Cuban artists to encourage hostility towards the Cuban government. USAID programs like these may not be run directly from the CIA, as they once were, but many are designed to influence domestic politics abroad.

And in Cuba, the contractors operate without a net, as was clearly explained to me on the phone that day: “You would be going into Cuba with a tourist passport, without any official cover, hosted by local activists and pretending to be a short-term visitor with no connections to the US government.” It would be up to me and my Cuban hosts to avoid detection, I was told, and my three-day orientation would include minimal training on keeping a cover story. Alan Gross, according to the AP, knew his work would be considered an illegal provocation as well; he had in his possession a satellite phone chip that can only be purchased by government agencies, to help callers avoid detection. He may not have received proper training, as he contended in a lawsuit against contractor DAI and USAID, but surely he knew the risks he was taking in exchange for his $500,000 fee.

Given USAID’s history of supporting undemocratic leaders, and shunning civil society organizations  that disagreed with US foreign policy, I had to turn them down. Who’s to say that the best outcomes for the Cuban people line up neatly with the Obama Administration’s priorities?

Considering their recent blunders in Cuba and other Latin American countries, we might want to ask ourselves if USAID is the right vehicle for accomplishing their stated mission “to partner to end extreme poverty and to promote resilient, democratic societies while advancing the security and prosperity of the United States.” If history is a guide, the agency may actually be in the way of progress.

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