Beginning in October 2009, U.S. officials deployed a dozen Peruvians, Venezuelans and Costa Ricans to Cuba. Tasked with recruiting dissident Cubans 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 subsequently terminated last week — was conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The mission boasted the seal of approval of the State Department, which has since defended the program both for promoting democracy and for providing Cubans with “the secondary benefit” of health education.
But that stance is built on two flawed assumptions: first, that the health of a people is secondary in value to U.S. security interests and, second, that humanitarian aid projects and offensive covert operations should overlap.
In 2011, an anonymous whistleblower revealed that the CIA had used the cover of a polio vaccination program to gain access to an Islamabad burrow where Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding. Following the revelation, dozens of medical volunteers were killed over espionage allegations and mistrust of vaccination programs led to a polio outbreak in Pakistan.
The Obama administration publicly condemned the CIA operation in Pakistan for the collateral damage that ensued. This past May, the White House banned the use of phony vaccination programs, sending a clear-cut message to the U.S. intelligence community that health projects should not be used to advance intelligence goals.
By staging HIV prevention centers in Cuba, USAID has unabashedly disregarded that message. Not only has it tarnished the reputation of this country as a leader in humanitarian aid — it has jeopardized the safety of medical volunteers and undermined the credibility of health initiatives worldwide. No coup d’etat is worth that price.