A US programme in Cuba that secretly used an HIV-prevention workshop for political activism has been assailed by international public health officials and members of the US Congress who declared that such clandestine efforts put health programmes at risk around the world.
We do programmes, as you know, around the world that promote democracy and promote access to this type of information.
"The use of an HIV workshop for intelligence purposes is unacceptable. The US government should never sacrifice delivering basic health services or civic programmes to advance an intelligence goal," said InterAction, an alliance of global non-governmental aid groups.
Senator Patrick Leahy said on Monday it would be "worse than irresponsible" if USAID "concocted" an HIV-prevention workshop to promote a political agenda.
Beginning in late 2009, USAID deployed nearly a dozen young people from Latin America to Cuba to recruit political activists, according to an investigation by the Associated Press news agency. The operation put the foreigners in danger not long after a US contractor was hauled away to a Cuban jail, the AP said.
The Obama administration defended its use of the HIV-prevention workshop for its Cuban democracy-promotion efforts but disputed that the project was a front for political purposes.
The programme "enabled support for Cuban civil society, while providing a secondary benefit of addressing the desires Cubans express for information and training about HIV prevention," said Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the US State Department.
"And we do programmes, as you know, around the world that promote democracy and promote access to this type of information," she said.
Documents and interviews make clear that the programme was aimed at recruiting a younger generation of opponents to Cuba's Castro government. It is illegal in Cuba to work with foreign democracy-building programmes.
Documents prepared for the USAID-sponsored programme called the HIV workshop the "perfect excuse" to conduct political activity.
'Dumb, dumb, dumb'
Leahy, who is chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees USAID, said in response to the AP's findings: "It may have been good business for USAID's contractor, but it tarnishes USAID's long track record as a leader in global health."
The White House is still facing questions about a once-secret "Cuban Twitter" project, known as ZunZuneo. That programme, launched by USAID in 2009 and reported by the AP in April, established a primitive social media network under the noses of Cuban officials. USAID's inspector general is investigating it.
In April, Leahy called the ZunZuneo programme "dumb, dumb, dumb".
Not all politicians who were commenting on Monday were critical.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, said USAID's programmes 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 pro-democracy programmes there.