In 2009, U.S. officials deployed a dozen Peruvians, Venezuelans, and Costa Ricans to Cuba. Tasked with recruiting dissident Cubans who were intent on toppling the regime of President Raul Castro, the agents assumed the cover of international HIV prevention workers.
The clandestine operation — exposed by an Associated Press investigation and ended this month — was conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The State Department approved the mission; it has defended the program for promoting democracy and for providing Cubans with “the secondary benefit” of health education.
That stance is built on two flawed assumptions: that a country’s health is secondary to U.S. security interests, and that humanitarian aid projects and offensive covert operations should overlap.
In 2011, an anonymous whistle-blower revealed that the CIA had used the cover of a polio vaccination program to gain access to a location in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding. After the revelation, dozens of medical volunteers were killed over espionage allegations. Mistrust of vaccination efforts led to a polio outbreak in Pakistan.
The Obama Administration publicly condemned the CIA operation in Pakistan for the collateral damage that ensued. In May, the White House banned the use of phony vaccination programs, sending a clear-cut message that health projects should not be used to advance intelligence goals.
USAID disregarded that message with its HIV prevention centers in Cuba. It has tarnished the United States’ reputation as a global leader in humanitarian aid, jeopardized the safety of medical volunteers, and undermined the credibility of health initiatives worldwide. No coup d’etat is worth that.