USAID in Cuba: Code names and counter surveillance

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For decades now, the U.S. government has carried out democracy projects aimed at undermining Cuba’s socialist government. One deal that has always intrigued me was the $15.5 million, three-year contract awarded to Creative Associates International in October 2008. The fact that Creative Associates ran the program from a secret base in Costa Rica added to the allure.
In 2014, the Associated Press scooped everyone with revelations that Creative Associates had set up a secret Cuban Twitter. USAID protested the story. Still, the AP report triggered a flurry of interest and an Office of Inspector General investigation soon followed.
But ZunZuneo was only the tip of the iceberg, making up $1.7 million of the $5.3 million in projects that Creative Associates funded. A review of 22 Creative Associates reports from 2008 to 2012 provides fresh insight into the NGO’s sprawling program and illustrates its dogged efforts to recruit young people and members of Cuba’s counterculture.
“Travelers” and “consultants” from at least 10 different countries in the Americas and Europe took part in the program. Projects and people were identified by code. USAID sent in supplies using via diplomatic mail service, coordinating closely with the embassy staff.
Download the Creative Associates documents here. Some of the details I found interesting are below:

October 2008

  • Counter Surveillance Security Training: On October 8, the Cuba staff attended a highly informative training presented by (redacted) based in (redacted) Virginia. The vendor was fully vetted by the Creative Associates Security Unit for this training session. The only attendees at this session were project staff. The session was held at Creative Associates International, Inc. (Creative) in Washington, D.C. prior to the deployment of the Start-Up Team. The Cuba team was briefed on the nature and methods of the Cuban State Security (DSI) services, safe travel to the island, elicitation techniques, and Cuban intelligence capacity abroad. Current country conditions as well as technology and communication sensitivities were discussed. Information gleaned from the training will be of critical importance to prepare visits to Cuba as well as ensure that we maintain optimal security standards at our Costa Rica office.
  • On October 20, the Latin American Exchanges Program Start-Up Team initiated on-the-ground start-up operations in San Jose, Costa Rica. Led by (redacted), the team includes (redacted). The Start-Up Team is operating out of a fully-equipped temporary office space located near the US Embassy.

The report said corporate bank accounts were established in Costa Rica. The project team was looking for permanent office space and was considering the Escazu, Rohrmoser and Sabana neighborhoods of San José.
Team members were also recruiting and identifying candidates for local staff positions. They expected to begin reaching out to prospective partners in Costa Rica during the week of Nov. 3.
The report said their first field officer “will be on location in Cuba between December 2008 and January 2009. The Field Officer will receive a 2-day preparation briefing in mid-November in San Jose. The main tasks of the Field Officer will be to assess the ongoing environment and current needs in two specific provinces, and begin developing a network of contacts in these provinces.

  • (redacted) is planning a 3-day trip to Guatemala City between November 15 and 21, to identify possible partner NGOs.
  • CREA drafted protocol for disbursement of cash grants, which is currently under OTI review.

OTI stands for the Office of Transition Initiatives, a USAID branch specializing in aggressive programs aimed at promoting political change. (See “Another window of opportunity for OTI?“).
Team leaders planned to use diplomatic mail to ship “programmatic cargo” to the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica.

  • We have begun to identify immediate grant-making opportunities in Cuba (i.e. low-hanging fruit). We aim to disburse between three and five small grants or activities to recipients on the island prior to December 31, 2008. These will be delivered either by a Field Officer or an STTA provider.” STTA stands for Short Term Technical Assistance.

December 2008

  • Embassy coordination has been established and is ongoing.

June 2009

  • Full briefings/preparations for the first round of trips to Cuba were carried out in Venezuela and Panama. Travelers are on the island for 18 days.
  • CREA-CR staff has fully prepared FO5 to travel to the island. He will be traveling the second week of July for six weeks.

The report said F05 planned to gather information on cuentapropistas and rural organizations.

  • Grantee staff traveled to the island and met with SJO011 group to carry out program design activities. They were unable to meet with SJO010 beneficiaries on the island due to security concerns.
  • FO7 has been fully prepared to travel by CREA-CR staff. He will search for networking opportunities among hurricane victims, rural groups, and victims of economic discrimination.
  • FO6 is successfully exploring youth networks in rural areas.
  • Two grantee staff members will be attending a strategic planning and mapping session in Spain in July 2009. Work has also begun on the development of the leadership module that will be implemented with youth in Cuba.
  • Perceived security threat by grantee prohibited them from accessing beneficiary for SJO010. Staff has made a full assessment of the situation and is evaluating a proposed consultant to make a second attempt. Material assistance will be postponed until further notice.
  • Vetting NGOs for the Cuban context continues to be a challenge and with each selection new lessons are learned.

July 2009

  • Travelers have returned safely with a number of ideas for potential projects.
  • Content development for the project continues with a scheduled sneak preview next month, logo development and full program release by September 15th.
  • Media pieces are being edited and material assistance has been delivered. Training sessions on the use of new technologies was carried out by CREA staff to a total of 12 beneficiaries.
  • F05 is on the island meeting with members of the targeted constituencies and is scheduled to return at the end of August.
  • Consultant is currently on the island and is scheduled to return next month with an action plan for the next phases of this grant, information on economic crimes and the legal framework of the island, and follow up on F02 contacts.
  • F04 has returned, was debriefed by CREA staff in his home country, and has submitted a trip report.
  • Grantee staff members successfully traveled to the island to deliver material assistance and a second trip is scheduled for mid-August. A strategic planning and mapping session was held in Spain in July, which resulted in the final plan for the development of materials for the leadership module and the network mapping training.
  • CREA and grantee staff traveled to Europe for five days and conducted intensive strategic planning sessions with the beneficiary, resulting in a plan for mapping of local actors, building two program interventions and developing other related tasks for the next 18 months.
  • SJO019 is under implementation. Web site design is completed and the first communications text has been conducted successfully. The Web site includes tracking mechanisms for site traffic statistics and has recorded 8,052 hits so far, averaging 960 hits per day. Troubleshooting of unforeseen technical issues is underway.
  • Program staff is evaluating potential grantees from Peru, El Salvador, Chile, Guatemala and Colombia.

November 2009

  • OTI and Creative held a strategic planning session in San Jose October 21-22nd.
  • Grantee staff traveled to Costa Rica and a plan was developed to design civic education tools and determine how to use their methodology to strengthen civic leaders in Cuba.
  • As activities pick up and the number of NGOs and consultants traveling under our Program increase, our staff has received notices of increased state security monitoring of consultants and local beneficiaries on site. During this month we received news of three security incidents, which were properly notified to OTI and for which contingency plans were launched. The CCSSP is making the necessary adjustments to security protocols to minimize exposure to risk by both our partner NGOs and local beneficiaries.

January 2010

This report cited the detention of an unnamed U.S. citizen in December 2009. Alan Gross, then a USAID subcontractor, was jailed and later charged with setting up illegal Internet hotspots in Cuba. He was working for Development Alternatives Inc., not Creative Associates, but his arrest disrupted USAID travel to Cuba.

  • Travel to the island is still on hold and staff continues to seek other ways to carry out activities while maintaining successful grantee and local beneficiary engagement.
  • Staff is seeking alternative means of delivering necessary assistance to finalize field work.
  • Field activities were carried out as planned in January and local beneficiaries finalized logistics preparations. Two workshops, an independent artistic event and the groundwork for audiovisual workshops were all conducted successfully.

March 2010

  • Activities continue successfully with 1,300 subscriptions to date. Products continue to be delivered successfully. Positive feedback continues to be reported. (The report doesn’t identify the “products”).

November 2010

Creative Associates closed its San José field office and cut the size of its project team from 15 to seven.
A 2009-10 report about the NGO’s Cuba work stated:

  • “In 2009, 77 travelers were on the ground in Cuba a total of 320 of the 365 days of the year.”
  • Since beginning of program, more than $200,000 in material goods was given to project beneficiaries.
  • “Our program assisted in the formation and development of an initiative seeking to establish bonds of collaboration and identity among cultural and community leaders. The project was created by a core of cultural promoters with a vision for a more participative society. A large number of cultural figures were enlisted to support the project.”

Creative also funded a satirical social media project. “Our program has supported the development of a ‘humoristic news’ format that blends humor and satire to analyze the status quo. With our support this product has issued four editions later distributed in CDs to audiences on the island.”

January 2011

Then-President Barack Obama loosened economic sanctions against Cuba, including travel restrictions.

  • According to some analysts, the ease in limitations could attract up to 800,000 American travelers to the island over the next year, since Clinton-era religious, cultural and academic programs could re-emerge. It also creates the potential for new groups interested in strengthening ties between both countries and promoting civil society in Cuba to initiate similar programs.

The report stated that possible implications include:

  • Risk factors may decrease for US consultants and grantee travelers to the island, as additional detentions of US citizens may jeopardize the expected flow of new US citizens traveling to the island.
  • The new allowances on remittances may reduce the program’s reliance on travelers in order to send cash to the island.
  • The possibility that (redacted) is released soon increases, as it is unlikely that the President approved these measures without previous negotiations on the matter. His release will most probably be preceded by a show trial seeking to condemn and put media attention on USG Cuba programs.

The report also discussed “key programmatic accomplishments,” including:

  • Sector CP – This innovative sector seeks to counter apathy and stimulate civic engagement by supporting media projects that communicate positive, unbiased messages through different aspects of everyday life and humor.”
    “The grantee has completed the first phase of designing a web-based tool that will allow information sharing through interactive technology platforms. Preliminary test results will be delivered in February to begin the testing process on a peer-to-peer networking platform that will provide information through alternative communication routes to beneficiaries on the island.
  • Sector CP (2) – The grantee is finalizing the testing process of the new multidirectional platform to be openly launched to the targeted audience in February. This product will provide an interactive space among beneficiary users and between the users and the platform.

March 2011

The report noted that the Cuban government had broadcast a series of videos called, “Las Razones de Cuba,” which USAID describes as “a seven-episode TV series arguing a direct link exists between dissidents, communications technology, and the US government.”

  • …the Cuban authorities accuse the United States of conducting a Cyber War, with the aim to destabilize the communist government through “cyber-dissidents” such as Yoani Sanchez and Dagoberto Valdes.

Also this month, Cuban authorities sentenced Alan Gross to a 15-year jail term.

April 2011

  • By portraying any independent actor for social change as a mercenary financed by the U.S. Government and a traitor, which could signify jail time per the Cuban Constitution, the Cuban government has successfully infused autonomous grassroots circles with increasing fear and distrust. The situation appears to be tense on the island and government representatives at universities, work places, and mass organizations are more suspicious and observant of anyone establishing a professional relationship with foreigners outside of state control.

June 2011

The report stated that lawmakers led by then-Sen. John Kerry had requested a revision of USAID’s Cuba programs in April. This delayed release of $20 million in funds for the programs, but many Cuba projects continued unmolested. Stated one progress report:

  • The second set of products of this phase was completed and the grantee is in the process of distribution through an online platform to reach a larger network.

July 2011

  • A cash disbursement was successfully delivered to the beneficiaries with a consultant. The consultant conducted monitoring and evaluation activities during his trip.
  • CREA is working with grantee to document the security incident under SJO075 and will mitigate the impact on the current initiative.

November 2011

  • Final payments have been made to the grantee, and all reports have been submitted for approval.
  • …this grant will launch a new product to promote the development of local communities and group collaboration skills.
  • A cash disbursement was issued, sent and received by beneficiaries in the island. The money will be used to provide support to a small group of stakeholders who have collaborated with the beneficiaries in previous activities.

January 2012

  • Creative submitted a revised Contract Completion Plan to OTI for approval of planned close out activities to take place beginning in March 2012.

According to Creative Associates, the Cuban government responded to its projects with an “intense low-profile harassment campaign” against Cuba’s “youth and counterculture sector.”
The campaign produced “a chilling effect on youth activists throughout much of 2010 and 2011. By late 2011 the sector appears to be re-emerging.”
The arrest of Alan Gross forced the NGO to reduce travel to Cuba. “Grantee trips to Cuba were reduced to single digits. Virtually all trips were conducted under non-tourist visas and open visibility to the GOC (Government of Cuba).”
Creative soon adopted a new model it called “cash for project” or CxP. Creative states: “The CxP model does not depend on program presence in Cuba. Cash-based assistance is provided to local beneficiaries after they submit proposals with budgets and agree to specific reporting requirements.”
Creative also began sponsoring more workshops abroad. “We partner with Latin American NGOs to organize skills development-focused workshops outside of Cuba for local beneficiaries.”
Creative lists among its accomplishments:

  • Successfully developed a network of over 30 independent community leaders across provinces
  • 28 unspecified “small victories”
  • “Youth and countercultural groups are solidly established”
  • Seven communication platforms established and functioning

The NGO said one lesson it learned in Cuba is that face-to-face contact is essential, stating:
“Cuba travel may be cut back to respond to risk or cost considerations, but excessive reduction may easily lead to the erosion of trust-based bonds between grantees and beneficiaries. This makes it impossible for grantees to nudge the work of beneficiaries towards effective social change. There is really no substitute for field presence, even if limited, either for mentoring, monitoring, or gathering information on local context developments.”
Creative also conceded that it’s difficult to force political change in Cuba and depends on many factors, including pressure from Cuban authorities.
“The pace of implementation must be dictated by context imperatives…it does not matter how much intensity we would like to imprint on our activities if beneficiaries are simply frozen under intense pressure by the GOC.”
USAID’s Office of Inspector General said Creative received $11,167,031 of its original $15.5 million contract. The program awarded 103 grants, 12 of which were linked to ZunZuneo.
The IG did not investigate whether the program involved covert actions as defined by the National Security Act of 1947, but said, “In the future, we plan to conduct audit work on USAID’s approach to handling activities that are not widely acknowledged and that may raise questions about whether they could be considered covert.”
I have searched for such an audit online and have not found it. If anyone has seen such an document, let me know and I will post it.
USAID officials object to such terms as “secret” and “covert” and say they operate with discretion to protect participants.

12 thoughts on “USAID in Cuba: Code names and counter surveillance”

  1. Tracey,

    This is an invaluable service. The sheer arrogance (and greed) of US agencies that presume they have the right and ability to do this kind of work in someone else’s country is mind boggling.

    One hopes that Samantha Power and the Biden-Harris team at USAID are reading this and purging whatever the Trumpists started or their interventionist liberal colleagues aspire to in Cuba.

    The greatest irony is that if the embargo and Cuban Adjustment Act were ended, the natural economic and cultural engagement between our populations and from legitimate study abroad programs would bring us much closer to the ostensible well paid goals of the Beltway Bandits.

    Reply
  2. Hollywood could make an Oscar movie out of this article. The money could be used to “incentivize” other projects.

    Reply
  3. Seria preferifible recibir el golpe de un nuevo “Fat Man or Little Boy” y matar de una sola vez a toda la población de Cuba que escuchar estas narrativas que te hacen imaginar tantos cosas sobre macabros objetivos, pésimos escrúpulos y como retorcidos “cientificos” prestan y juegan con su malévolo arte con fines de destrucción y oscuridad. Haciéndoles creer a los ilusos, desesperados y hambrientos que vienen por el bien, repitiendo aquella fatídica historia del “Caballo de Troya”.
    Son iguales de deplorables estas armas y estrategias que usar armas de destrucción masiva o químicas.
    Perdona Senor a estas pecadores, mesías y sarraceno.

    Reply

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