WASHINGTON — Fernando Murillo was typical of the young Latin Americans deployed to Cuba by a U.S. agency to work undercover. He had little training in the dangers of clandestine operations — or how to evade one of the world's most sophisticated counterintelligence services.
Their assignment was to recruit young Cubans to antigovernment activism, which they did under the guise of civic programs, including an HIV prevention workshop. Murillo was instructed to check in every 48 hours and was provided with a set of security codes. "I have a headache," for instance, meant the Costa Rican thought the Cubans were watching him and the mission should be suspended.
Over at least two years, the U.S. Agency for International Development — best known for overseeing billions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian aid — sent nearly a dozen neophytes from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Peru to gin up opposition in Cuba. The danger was apparent to USAID, if not to the young operatives: A USAID contractor, American Alan Gross, had just been hauled away to a Cuban jail for smuggling in sensitive technology. He remains there still.
USAID hired Creative Associates International, a Washington-based company, as part of a civil society program against Cuba's communist government. The same company was central to the creation of a "Cuban Twitter" — a messaging network revealed in April by the Associated Press, designed to reach hundreds of thousands of Cubans.
According to internal documents obtained by the AP and interviews in six countries, USAID's young operatives posed as tourists, visited college campuses and used a ruse that could undermine USAID's credibility in critical health work around the world: An HIV-prevention workshop one called the "perfect excuse" to recruit political activists, according to a report by Murillo's group. For all the risks, some travelers were paid as little as $5.41 an hour.
The travelers program was launched during a time when newly inaugurated President Barack Obama spoke about a "new beginning" with Cuba after decades of mistrust, raising questions about whether the White House had a coherent policy toward the island nation.
There's no evidence that the program advanced the mission to create a prodemocracy movement against the government of Raul Castro. Creative Associates declined to comment, referring questions to USAID.
USAID would not say how much the Costa Rica-based program cost. In response to questions from the AP, the agency issued a statement that said, "USAID and the Obama administration are committed to supporting the Cuban people's desire to freely determine their own future. USAID works with independent youth groups in Cuba on community service projects, public health, the arts and other opportunities to engage publicly, consistent with democracy programs worldwide."
In a statement late Sunday, USAID said the HIV workshop had a dual purpose: It "enabled support for Cuban civil society while providing a secondary benefit of addressing the desire Cubans expressed for information and training about HIV prevention."
But the AP investigation revealed an operation that often teetered on disaster. Cuban authorities questioned who was bankrolling the travelers. The young workers came dangerously close to blowing their mission to "identify potential social-change actors." And there was no safety net for the inexperienced travelers, who were doing work that was explicitly illegal in Cuba.
"Although there is never total certainty, trust that the authorities will not try to harm you physically, only frighten you," the workers' instructions read. "Remember that the Cuban government prefers to avoid negative media reports abroad, so a beaten foreigner is not convenient for them."
After Gross was arrested, USAID privately told contractors that they should consider suspending travel to Cuba, according to emails obtained by the AP.
"We value your safety," one senior USAID official said in an email, less than a week after Gross was seized.
"The guidance applies to ALL travelers to the island, not just American citizens," another official wrote.
And yet four months later, in April 2010, Murillo was sent to Havana.
In response to the AP's report, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said USAID's programs were important for human rights in Cuba. "We must continue to pressure the Castro regime and support the Cuban people, who are oppressed on a daily basis," said Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban native and vocal supporter of prodemocracy programs there.
'It's just wrong'
Murillo, then 29, was the charismatic head of a human rights group in Costa Rica called Fundacion Operacion Gaya Internacional, which had been contracted by Creative Associates to turn Cuba's apathetic young people into effective political actors.
He headed to Santa Clara, a city three hours from Havana, where Murillo connected with a cultural group that called itself "Revolution," a modest outfit of artists devoted to electronic music and video.
Murillo wasn't there long before a state security officer, Carlos Pozo, took notice — a problem Murillo reported to Creative Associates, records show.
If the idea was to hold a series of seminars to recruit new "volunteers," Murillo needed a theme that would both draw in potential recruits and still be sanctioned by the state.
An HIV prevention workshop was just the thing.
Months later, in November 2010, the workshop drew 60 people. Pozo also participated — evidence, Murillo said, that his scheme was working.
The workshop was supposed to offer straightforward sex education for HIV prevention, such as the proper way to use a condom.
"Cubans expressed a desire for information and training about HIV prevention, and the workshop helped to address their needs," USAID said in response to written questions.
But the ulterior motive, documents show, was to use the workshop as a recruiting ground for young people by showing them how to organize themselves.
This was a strategy that the travelers hoped to spread across the island: The newly organized young people would tackle a community or social problem, win a "small victory" and ultimately realize that they could be the masters of their own destiny.
Reached in San Jose, Costa Rica, Murillo said he could not speak about the details of his Cuba trips because he had signed a nondisclosure agreement. He said he wasn't trying to do anything beyond teach people how to use condoms properly.
"I never said to a Cuban that he had to do something against the government. If that was the mission of others, I don't know," Murillo said. "I never told a Cuban what he had to do."
Nevertheless, Murillo's six-page report back to Creative Associates mentioned HIV only once, to note that it was "the perfect excuse for the treatment of the underlying theme." Elsewhere, the report revealed another objective: "to generate a network of volunteers for social transformation."
Manuel Barbosa, a founder of Revolution, said in a recent interview in Santa Clara the Costa Ricans never told him that they were working for USAID.
He said he has no antigovernment leanings, in fact, his grandfather was a "martyr of the revolution."
Staging a workshop as a front to subvert a foreign government risked casting suspicion on USAID's legitimate public health mission, including a more than $3 billion annual HIV program that the agency says has helped some 50 million people in nearly 100 countries. The CIA recently pledged to stop using vaccine programs to gather intelligence, such as one in Pakistan that targeted Osama bin Laden.
An evaluation prepared for USAID by Creative Associates cited the workshop as a "success story." The group's final report said the workshop would be used as a blueprint across the island.
"These programs are in desperate need of adult supervision," said Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona and longtime critic of USAID's Cuba programs. "If you are using an AIDS workshop as a front for something else, that's … I don't know what to say … it's just wrong."
While Murillo and the Costa Rican travelers focused on the HIV workshop and other programs, teams of Venezuelans and Peruvians were deployed to Cuba's college campuses. Their mission, documents and interviews show, was to recruit university students with the long-term goal of turning them against their government.
In late 2009, Creative Associates contracted with Venezuelan lawyer Zaimar Castillo, then 22, who ran an organization called Renova. Castillo declined to comment, but her former administrator, Yajaira Andrade, said she was flown to San Jose for training.
"They gave us a week of classes, teaching us what we were going to do and how we were going to do it," said Andrade, who called herself the "mom" of the young activists.
At the time, Venezuela's president, the late Hugo Chavez, was the closest ally of brothers Fidel and Raul Castro — doubling the risk for Renova. They set up a bank account for their contract dollars in Panama, a haven for anonymous banking.
"We worked it so that the government here didn't know we were traveling to Cuba and helping these groups," Andrade said. "Because that was when Chavez was in power, and if he had known about us — that some Venezuelans were working to stir rebellion — we would have been thrown in jail."
On April 24, 2010, three Renova colleagues landed in Havana for a monthlong visit. Their "cover story," according to an internal document, was that they were visiting Cuban friends.
"It's fundamental that they don't get obsessed," said Creative Associates manager Xavier Utset, who now works at USAID, in a Skype chat. "Otherwise on the ground, they will freeze … or they will betray themselves … and both things are fatal."
The Venezuelans visited the dorms on campus at the university in Santa Clara and took weekend trips to meet the families of the students. A separate team of young Peruvians also targeted the university in Santa Clara.
In a trip account that reads like an intelligence report, the Venezuelans describe the students and their facilities in great detail, noting complaints and fairness issues that might be exploited. Potential recruits were listed by name, and then profiled, their leadership qualities assessed in a spreadsheet.
The report went on to describe the political culture of the university, including the role of the Union of Communist Youth, which sought to groom the best and brightest for party posts after graduation. Student gripes also were detailed: bad food, intermittent water and electricity, leaks in the ceilings. The students feared the state and were dissatisfied with their economic reality, according to the report, but were politically apathetic just the same.
The fact that the students were constantly criticizing the regime, they reported, "assures us of having beneficiaries with a clear mind as to the objectives that we are pursuing."
After visiting two universities in two cities, the Venezuelan consultants identified a "target group" of students they thought both opposed the government and had organizational skills, having put together on their own activities like "camping" and "a university festival," documents show.
"They established one group of 30 people, young people studying science, to rebel against the government," said Andrade, the Renova administrator.
There's no evidence the political objectives were ever realized. In fact, their Cuban contacts in recent interviews with the AP said they were astonished to discover that the foreigners were acting on behalf of the U.S. government.
"They were our friends," said Cuban Hector Baranda, who topped the Venezuelans' list of potential converts.
He thinks the visitors may have mistaken typical Cuban griping as dissident tendencies. Cuban authorities have little tolerance for counterrevolutionary opposition, but letters to the Communist Party newspaper Granma complain about unfilled potholes, uncollected garbage and Cuba's impenetrable bureaucracy.
"A Cuban always says 'aggggh,' whether (the problems are) big or small," Baranda said.
Cubans catching on
Cuba considers all of USAID's democracy promotion work to be subversive, punishable by up to 10 years behind bars. It was a risky business for the travelers.
Over time, Creative Associates adjusted its security strategy. It warned against the use of encrypted flash drives stamped conspicuously with the word "IronKey," — that was a giveaway at airport security. Travelers were encouraged to bring in laptops packed with photos and personal data to mask their mission material.
In case of arrest, Creative Associates was not to be mentioned, a report said, travelers were told to contact their home country's embassy.
Under questioning, Creative Associates advised the travelers to keep their cool. They should remember that "nothing that you have done during your trip is illegal, in any way, in any open and democratic society. In this way, you can maintain a calm demeanor during the interrogation."
But despite efforts to hide their intentions, by late 2010, there were signs the Cubans were catching on.
A security officer asked who was funding Murillo's project. Creative Associates concluded that the questioning left "no room for doubt about the interest they brought to themselves by the state police."
Worse yet, a December security report suggested the Cubans had figured out that the United States was targeting young people instead of the aging ranks of well-known Castro opponents.
When one Cuban asked a traveler why he was interested in Cuba, he responded that his organization worked with many countries.
"Of course, this is not accurate" said the report. If the Cubans checked out the story, they would have known it was a lie.
On Sept. 3, 2010, Irving Perez, a manager at Creative Associates' office in San Jose, called a meeting via Skype to announce a change in strategy.
"Our program will no longer rely on trips to the island, at least not as the backbone of the operation," Perez told two Peruvian travelers. Several of the grants would be terminated, including the Venezuelans'.
Instead of traveling to Cuba, they would try to help certain "star contacts" get exit visas to train in a third country. The Cuban "beneficiaries" left on the island would receive cash payments to run the recruitment efforts. Creative Associates' subcontractors would bring cash to the islanders using "mules," a term borrowed from drug smuggling.
They would "try to manage the project by remote control," Perez explained.
But that strategy had its own perils.
A 'heart attack'
For a month, Perez had been asking for a report from a pair of Cuban college students, anxious to file his paperwork for USAID.
The students had been using encrypted Hushmail. That might have raised a red flag to Cuban authorities who monitor Internet activity.
"We have reasons to believe that they have been under great pressure from university authorities," a Creative Associates report says. "It is not recommended at this time to try to reach them again."
The Costa Rican grant fell apart on Murillo's third trip to the island in June, 2011. Creative Associates wanted him to deliver money, collect reports and help arrange exit visas. Managers worried that Murillo was indiscreet. "Why are these guys not using Hushmail?" lamented a Creative Associates manager.
To deliver the money, contractors discussed sending it with Murillo's relatives. One manager in San Jose wrote, "It should be remembered that the 'mule' doesn't know exactly what the money is for nor where it comes from."
In the end, the "mule" was Murillo's childhood friend, who recounted the experience in an interview with the AP on condition of anonymity. The friend, who lives in San Jose, said being associated with USAID's political agenda in Cuba would jeopardize his employment.
He said his security training took about a half hour over Skype. "It was made clear to me that I must be careful because the money we carried was gringo."
After arriving in Havana, the pair headed to Santa Clara to meet with Revolution, the arts group. One member, not Barbosa, told them to hand over the money he knew they were carrying, he said.
"He threatened us directly that if we didn't give him the money, he would go to the authorities and denounce us," said Murillo's friend.
Murillo declined to comment.
Unsettled, the travelers hurried back to Havana, and invoking one of the security codes from a hotel, abandoned the project. The friend was terrified.
"If they had detained or even just interrogated me," he said, "I would have died of a heart attack from fright."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Earlier versions of this story appearing in print and online were edited for length.