"We send you, and you working with the people in those countries to try to work with them in developing the economic thrust of their countries." (Audio via John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, image via U.S. Agency for International Development)
That was President Kennedy speaking in 1962 to members of the U.S. Agency for International Development. More than 50 years later …
"The AP's reporting alleges USAID tried to use an HIV workshop to gain intelligence." (Via Al Jazeera)
The Associated Press was the first to report USAID sent young Latin Americans posing as HIV educators and tourists to Cuba to promote rebellion and recruit political activists.
Sounds like more the CIA's territory — not the work of an agency that says its core mission is to provide "economic, development and humanitarian assistance." (Via U.S. Agency for International Development)
Here's why the new allegations are potentially problematic: Congress allocates billions of dollars to USAID to meet its stated mission.
So not only is going outside of that specific purpose potentially misusing those funds, but it also potentially puts legitimate aid programs at risk of not being trusted to operate in other countries.
The chairman of the Senate subcommittee tasked with monitoring the agency wasn't pleased with the news. Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy said in a statement, if true, the Cuba program "tarnishes USAID's long track record as a leader in global health." (Via Office of Sen. Patrick Leahy)
USAID issued a statement of its own, stressing its work "is not secret, it is not covert, nor is it undercover."
The agency pointed to this website, where it says it makes public information about its programs in Cuba — and any other country for that matter. Its Cuba page actually reads: "U.S. assistance will support civil society initiatives that promote democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms." (Via ForeignAssistance.gov)
A budget breakdown on that site suggests the agency plans to spend at least $15 million on "democracy promoting initiatives" in Cuba in fiscal year 2015. The question is, what constitutes democracy-promoting initiatives and how well those programs are executed?
And that's where USAID has come under fire before. Just four months ago, another AP investigation claimed USAID operated a Twitter-like social media network to fuel unrest in Cuba and mine data from Cuban Internet users. (Via RT)
USAID defended the program as a "discreet," not covert, means of increasing the free flow of expression in a repressive regime.
Other negative headlines for USAID include this one from 2009 when a USAID contractor was jailed in Cuba for 15 years for alleged spying. (Via The Washington Post)
And last year, Bolivian President Evo Morales kicked the agency out of the country — accusing it of conspiring against Bolivia. (Via BBC)
There were also reports based on cables published by WikiLeaks that suggested USAID had actively worked to destabilize the government of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. (Via RT)
Supporters would argue this so-called discreet work goes hand-in-hand with the agency's core mission of promoting social and economic development.
Florida Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart would agree. He described USAID's work in Cuba as "precisely the types of activities that the United States must vigorously pursue in closed societies" while also calling the AP's reporting an "overly biased hit piece." (Via Office of Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Center for Strategic & International Studies)
But — as we noted earlier — critics say the negative attention surrounding these programs undermines the good work USAID is doing elsewhere.
As one Cuba observer put it in an April op-ed for The New York Times: "Regime-change programs have a negative impact on larger U.S. foreign policy interests as well as on the legitimacy of U.S.A.I.D.'s own core missions to advance global health and economic welfare."
Among its other projects, USAID provides emergency food assistance and education programs and expands access to clean water around the world.