A Costa Rican human rights organization is disputing a report by the Associated Press (AP) this week that its activities in Cuba were covertly designed to foment a revolution against the communist government.
Fernando Murillo, founder and CEO of Fundacion Operacion GAYA Internacional (FundaOGI), accused the AP in a statement of "manipulat[ing]" information about the group’s HIV-prevention workshop in Cuba. The AP reported on Monday that the workshop was part of a "clandestine operation" overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) with the goal of "ginning up rebellion" on the island.
"[The AP] manipulated information in order to make it look like FundaOGI had instructions to set up cultural and artistic activities in an undercover way for destabilizing ends, which is totally false," Murillo said.
Additionally, other defenders of the USAID program have raised concerns about the AP’s characterization of the projects.
The AP mentioned FundaOGI’s HIV-prevention workshop as an example of the type of projects USAID supported to "provoke political change" in Cuba.
USAID and its contractor, Creative Associates International, reportedly sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican, and Peruvian young people to Cuba to pose as tourists and secretly recruit political activists, according to the AP. Memos obtained by the AP called the HIV-prevention workshop "the perfect excuse" for promoting political change.
However, Murillo said in his statement that the suggestion that his group’s actions were destabilizing "is merely a subjective interpretation of the AP" and "is not substantiated either by the facts or by the documents."
The "perfect excuse" quote was taken out of context, he said. He argued that the HIV-prevention program was an "appropriate vehicle" to discuss not only health issues, but also other rights outlined in the Ibero-American Convention on Rights of Youth—a document signed by Cuba and supported by the youth rights organization UNICEF. Those rights include freedom of thought, protection of health, and freedom of assembly and participation.
Human rights issues remain "sensitive" in Cuba, but the goal of FundaOGI’s project was to educate people about HIV prevention, the rights of youth, and the importance of volunteering in local communities, Murillo said. The workshop took place in a government school and was observed by local cultural groups and authorities, he added.
Murillo also alleged that the AP published images and video of him without his permission. Additionally, he accused the AP of disregarding some information he provided and publishing an article that fit a preconceived narrative. AP editor Trish Wilson told him over the phone that the story was of interest because it could "hurt the government of the United States," he claimed.
An AP spokesman directed the Washington Free Beacon to comments it provided to the Tico Times, an online newspaper based in Costa Rica, about Murillo’s allegations.
"Mr. Murillo, secretly funded by the U.S. government, knew full well he was engaging in activity that was intended to help bring social and political change to Cuba," said Paul Colford, director of media relations for the AP. "The evidence is clear."
Colford pointed to a security protocol in the documents the AP obtained, which advised Murillo to "continue acting like just another tourist, play the fool and pretend you don’t know why you’re being questioned" if authorities asked about the workshop.
The Venezuelan human rights organization Renova also denounced the AP’s story in a statement on Thursday. The group’s members said they were not "spies" that sought to "destabilize" the Cuban government, and they accused the AP of publishing "false testimonies," violating the anonymity of sources, and subjecting one of its members to "harassment."
Jose Cardenas, a former senior USAID administrator in the George W. Bush administration who helped oversee the Cuba program, said in an interview that the AP’s assertion that it was intended to stir up rebellion was "risible" and "absurd."
The program sent Spanish speakers—who would be less conspicuous than Americans—to Cuba primarily to build civil society, he said. The Castro regime maintains control by "atomizing" Cubans to prevent them from thinking freely and forming groups, he added.
"There was nothing that was supposed to be provocative, " he said. "It was basically trying to reach out, develop relations, and restore some sense of humanity to average Cubans—that they matter as individuals and they should have control of their own destiny."
Some security protocols were necessary because even the hint of discussing rights draws attention from Cuban authorities, Cardenas said.
"Even if you’re not supposed to be doing anything provocative, you still have to be careful," he said.
Reactions on Capitol Hill to the nature of the Cuba program have been mixed.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), a frequent critic of USAID’s efforts to promote civil society in Cuba, said the potential use of an HIV-prevention workshop for political purposes "tarnishes USAID’s long track record as a leader in global health."
However, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), a Cuban American, said in a statement that USAID’s efforts in Cuba were "no secret."
"We must continue to pressure the Castro regime and support the Cuban people, who are oppressed on a daily basis," she said. "I wish the press would dedicate more of their time to reporting the rampant human rights abuses in Cuba perpetrated by the Castro regime instead of manipulating the coverage of programs promoting freedom of expression and justice on the island."