It's been a rough few years for the United States Agency for International Development in Latin America.
From a USAID contractor jailed in 2009 in Cuba for alleged spying, to Bolivian President Evo Morales kicking the agency out of his country in 2013, the climate in parts of the region for US aid and influence is growing frostier.
Today, the Associated Press broke a story that USAID backed a program in Cuba that brought Latin American youth to the island in an alleged effort to stir up political dissent. The youngsters from Costa Rica, Venezuela, and Peru traveled to Cuba posing as tourists or health workers leading HIV prevention workshops, but with the real goal of grooming opposition activists.
This comes just months after the AP uncovered a “Cuba Twitter” program also designed to undermine the Cuban government. The Twitter-like social media platform, which didn't disclose its backers, had about 40,000 users in Cuba. USAID director Rajiv Shah later called it "dumb, dumb, dumb" in a Senate hearing.
All this from an agency that for decades has struggled to quash suspicions that it, like other US government arms, was a front for espionage and covert meddling.
"I think they are shooting themselves in the foot," says Geoff Thale, a program director at the Washington Office on Latin America, referring to USAID. The agency runs solid programs focused on health, democracy, and education, he says. “But all of this in Cuba really undercuts that good work.”
The US and Cuba have a particularly rocky relationship, to put it mildly. In the 1960s, the CIA was fixated on deposing former President Fidel Castro; a 1960 secret memo about Cuba written by a US diplomat favored turning Cubans against him by creating “economic dissatisfaction and hardship.” Others suggested deploying hit men from the mafia or supplying Mr. Castro with an exploding cigar. And, five decades on, the US embargo is still in place – as is Mr. Castro's hand-picked successor, brother Raul Castro.
In a statement today, USAID said its work in Cuba, "is not secret, it is not covert, nor is it undercover."
Cuba isn't the only blackspot for the agency. USAID announced earlier this year it planned to leave Ecuador, citing increasingly challenging relations with President Rafael Correa. When Bolivia kicked the agency out of its territory six months prior, botched programming in Cuba was cited, Mr. Thale says.
More broadly, the US's reputation in Latin America has taken a hit from revelations that the National Security Agency spied on leaders in Brazil and Mexico, and the embarrassing grounding of President Morales’s flight in Vienna last year amid suspicions that the leader had former NSA contractor Edward Snowden on board.
While USAID may be pursuing worthwhile goals in Cuba, such as increasing access to information and fostering student exchanges, its work is tainted by its shadowy practices, Thale says.
“If they are doing HIV prevention with young adults, that’s good. Leadership training is good,” he says. “But if we’re really interested in leadership development and youth training, we would get more from it by not doing it in this quasi-covert way.”