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For 50 years, US tried but failed to oust Castro

/ 06:23 AM December 19, 2014
Fidel Castro. AP FILE PHOTO

Fidel Castro. AP FILE PHOTO

WASHINGTON—For more than half a century, the US government’s schemes to overthrow the Castro government were, if not successful, always creative: the poisonous cigars, the exploding seashell, the secret Twitter-like service in Cuba.

President Barack Obama said on Wednesday the United States would reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba and bring change to the long-standing trade embargo. But it was unclear if all secret operations would cease.

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Disclosures by the Associated Press (AP) this year revealed how the US Agency for International Development (USAID) continued Washington’s stealthy democracy-promotion work as some lawmakers and others pressed for a return to normalcy with Cuba.

The White House’s announcement of revived ties came hours after American Alan Gross, a USAID contractor, was freed after serving five years in a Cuban prison for smuggling communications technology. Also on Wednesday, USAID administrator Rajiv Shah said he was leaving his post early next year.

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In programs revealed by the AP this year, USAID secretly created a primitive social media program called ZunZuneo, staged a health workshop to recruit activists and infiltrated Cuba’s hip-hop community.

Those programs were part of a campaign aimed at undermining the Castro government through the citizenry, rather than directly targeting political leaders. Yet, they were still fraught with danger and incompetence.

Following the disclosures, USAID prepared internal rules that would effectively end the agency’s risky undercover work in hostile countries.

The AP found USAID and its contractor, Creative Associates International, had concealed their involvement in the Cuban programs by setting up front companies, routing money through overseas bank transactions and fashioning elaborate cover stories.

Gross was working for a different USAID contractor, Development Alternatives.

The aid agency’s recent secret missions were the latest in a series of efforts by the US government—from Presidents John F. Kennedy to Obama—that began shortly after Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959.

Washington broke diplomatic relations two years later, around the time the doomed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-led Bay of Pigs invasion was launched to topple the new leader.

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The US government was not deterred. The CIA considered a plan to kill Castro by exploding an exotic seashell where he went diving, but it was deemed impractical.

Another scheme, in 1960, was designed to inject poison into Castro’s favorite cigars, but nothing came of that, either.

In more recent times, Gross—using backpacks and carry-on bags—smuggled secret communications equipment into Cuba to try to build an uncensored Internet network purportedly for the island’s small Jewish community. He was arrested, convicted and declared a spy by Cuban President Raúl Castro.

USAID’s recent Cuba programs, although less dangerous than some past misadventures, received sharp criticism this year from some US lawmakers who called them “reckless,” “boneheaded” and “downright irresponsible.”

Cuban artists swept up in the program were detained or interrogated by Cuban authorities. The secret US hip-hop operation backfired after Cuban authorities found that an independent music festival—one of the largest on the island—was really backed by the Obama administration.

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TAGS: Alan Gross, Castro government, Cuba, Diplomacy, Fidel Castro, Obama, Raul Castro, US
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