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U.S. sent Latin youth undercover in anti-Cuba ploy

  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 11, 2014, photo, Cuban students exit Marta Abreu Central University in Santa Clara, Cuba. Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian nationals to Cuba to cultivate a new generation of political activists. Often posing as tourists, the young travelers befriended Cuban students. Fernando Murillo, contracted to turn politically apathetic young Cubans into “change agents,” headed to Santa Clara and connected with a cultural group that called itself “Revolution,” a modest outfit of street artists devoted to electronic music and video. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

    HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 11, 2014, photo, Cuban students exit Marta Abreu Central University in Santa Clara, Cuba. Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian nationals to Cuba to cultivate a new generation of political activists. Often posing as tourists, the young travelers befriended Cuban students. Fernando Murillo, contracted to turn politically apathetic young Cubans into “change agents,” headed to Santa Clara and connected with a cultural group that called itself “Revolution,” a modest outfit of street artists devoted to electronic music and video. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 9, 2014, photo, Fernando Murillo, a founder of the human rights group Fundacion Operacion Gaya Internacional, talks with The Associated Press in San Jose, Costa Rica. Murillo had been contracted by Creative Associates to turn Cuba’s politically apathetic young people into "change agents." Six days after Cuban police arrested American contractor Alan Gross, the U.S. government agency that had paid for his trip signed up Murillo for another secret U.S. mission to the island. When he first arrived in Cuba, however, Murillo advocated a seemingly non-political agenda, which included collaborating with Cuban organizations on youth volunteerism and the cultivation of coconut paper, bananas and Cuba’s national flower, the mariposa blanca.  (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

    HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 9, 2014, photo, Fernando Murillo, a founder of the human rights group Fundacion Operacion Gaya Internacional, talks with The Associated Press in San Jose, Costa Rica. Murillo had been contracted by Creative Associates to turn Cuba’s politically apathetic young people into "change agents." Six days after Cuban police arrested American contractor Alan Gross, the U.S. government agency that had paid for his trip signed up Murillo for another secret U.S. mission to the island. When he first arrived in Cuba, however, Murillo advocated a seemingly non-political agenda, which included collaborating with Cuban organizations on youth volunteerism and the cultivation of coconut paper, bananas and Cuba’s national flower, the mariposa blanca. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - FILE - In this Nov. 27, 2012, file photo, provided by James L. Berenthal, jailed American Alan Gross poses during a visit by Rabbi Elie Abadie and U.S. lawyer James L. Berenthal at Finlay military hospital as he serves a prison sentence in Havana, Cuba. Six days after Cuban police arrested Gross, an American contractor working on a clandestine operation, the U.S. government agency that had paid for his trip signed up a young Costa Rican for another secret mission to the island.  (AP Photo/James L. Berenthal, File)

    HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - FILE - In this Nov. 27, 2012, file photo, provided by James L. Berenthal, jailed American Alan Gross poses during a visit by Rabbi Elie Abadie and U.S. lawyer James L. Berenthal at Finlay military hospital as he serves a prison sentence in Havana, Cuba. Six days after Cuban police arrested Gross, an American contractor working on a clandestine operation, the U.S. government agency that had paid for his trip signed up a young Costa Rican for another secret mission to the island. (AP Photo/James L. Berenthal, File)

  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - A woman walks in front of the building that once housed the human rights group Fundacion Operacion Gaya Internacional in Heredia, Costa Rica, on July 9, 2014. Fernando Murillo was the charismatic head of the group and he'd been contracted by Creative Associates to turn Cuba’s politically apathetic young people into "change agents." Murillo was an idealist devoted to human rights. A former boy scout, he had no experience in undercover work, yet would soon face off against one of the world’s most sophisticated counter-intelligence services, on a mission for Cuba’s adversary, the U.S. Before his trip to Havana on April 5, 2010, Murillo was given basic security training. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

    HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - A woman walks in front of the building that once housed the human rights group Fundacion Operacion Gaya Internacional in Heredia, Costa Rica, on July 9, 2014. Fernando Murillo was the charismatic head of the group and he'd been contracted by Creative Associates to turn Cuba’s politically apathetic young people into "change agents." Murillo was an idealist devoted to human rights. A former boy scout, he had no experience in undercover work, yet would soon face off against one of the world’s most sophisticated counter-intelligence services, on a mission for Cuba’s adversary, the U.S. Before his trip to Havana on April 5, 2010, Murillo was given basic security training. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 11, 2014, photo, Manuel Barbosa, 25, speaks during an interview with Associated Press in Santa Clara, Cuba. Fernando Murillo contacted Barbosa, a founder of the group "Revolution," while working on a clandestine operation by the Obama administration that dispatched Latin American youth to Cuba under the cover of health and civic programs to provoke unrest.  (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

    HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 11, 2014, photo, Manuel Barbosa, 25, speaks during an interview with Associated Press in Santa Clara, Cuba. Fernando Murillo contacted Barbosa, a founder of the group "Revolution," while working on a clandestine operation by the Obama administration that dispatched Latin American youth to Cuba under the cover of health and civic programs to provoke unrest. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 11, 2014, photo, Manuel Barbosa, 25, shows the logo of his "Revolution" audiovisual project during an interview with The Associated Press in Santa Clara, Cuba. Fernando Murillo contacted Barbosa, a founder of the group, while working on a clandestine operation by the Obama administration that dispatched Latin American youth to Cuba under the cover of health and civic programs to provoke unrest. Barbosa said he was initially open to collaboration with the foreigners but was never told they were working for the U.S. "They presented themselves as a non-governmental organization," Barbosa said. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

    HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 11, 2014, photo, Manuel Barbosa, 25, shows the logo of his "Revolution" audiovisual project during an interview with The Associated Press in Santa Clara, Cuba. Fernando Murillo contacted Barbosa, a founder of the group, while working on a clandestine operation by the Obama administration that dispatched Latin American youth to Cuba under the cover of health and civic programs to provoke unrest. Barbosa said he was initially open to collaboration with the foreigners but was never told they were working for the U.S. "They presented themselves as a non-governmental organization," Barbosa said. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014  - In this July 11, 2014, photo, Manuel Barbosa, 25, shows a tattoo of his “Revolution” cultural group during an interview with The Associated Press in Santa Clara, Cuba. Fernando Murillo contacted Barbosa, a founder of the group, while working on a clandestine operation by the Obama administration that dispatched Latin American youth to Cuba under the cover of health and civic programs to provoke unrest. Barbosa said he was initially open to collaboration with the foreigners but was never told they were working for the U.S. "They presented themselves as a non-governmental organization," Barbosa said. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

    HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 11, 2014, photo, Manuel Barbosa, 25, shows a tattoo of his “Revolution” cultural group during an interview with The Associated Press in Santa Clara, Cuba. Fernando Murillo contacted Barbosa, a founder of the group, while working on a clandestine operation by the Obama administration that dispatched Latin American youth to Cuba under the cover of health and civic programs to provoke unrest. Barbosa said he was initially open to collaboration with the foreigners but was never told they were working for the U.S. "They presented themselves as a non-governmental organization," Barbosa said. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - Photographs of Venezuelan Lawyer, Zaimar Castillo, are shown with other documents obtained by the Associated Press and photographed in Washington, Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. Creative Associates, a Washington based company hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development, contracted with Castillo who ran an NGO called Renova. Members of Renova we trained and deployed to Cuba’s college campuses. Their “cover story,” according to an internal document, was that they were visiting Cuban friends. Their mission, documents and interviews show, was to recruit university students with the long-term goal of turning them against their government. This was part of a program that secretly dispatched young Latin Americans to Cuba that put those foreigners in danger even after a U.S. contractor was hauled away to a Cuban jail. (AP Photo)

    HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - Photographs of Venezuelan Lawyer, Zaimar Castillo, are shown with other documents obtained by the Associated Press and photographed in Washington, Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. Creative Associates, a Washington based company hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development, contracted with Castillo who ran an NGO called Renova. Members of Renova we trained and deployed to Cuba’s college campuses. Their “cover story,” according to an internal document, was that they were visiting Cuban friends. Their mission, documents and interviews show, was to recruit university students with the long-term goal of turning them against their government. This was part of a program that secretly dispatched young Latin Americans to Cuba that put those foreigners in danger even after a U.S. contractor was hauled away to a Cuban jail. (AP Photo)

  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 11, 2014, photo, a Cuban student tries to flag down a taxi at the exit of Marta Abreu Central University in Santa Clara, Cuba. Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian nationals to Cuba to cultivate a new generation of political activists. Often posing as tourists, the young travelers befriended Cuban students. Fernando Murillo, contracted to turn politically apathetic young Cubans into “change agents,” headed to Santa Clara and connected with a cultural group that called itself “Revolution.” (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

    HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 11, 2014, photo, a Cuban student tries to flag down a taxi at the exit of Marta Abreu Central University in Santa Clara, Cuba. Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian nationals to Cuba to cultivate a new generation of political activists. Often posing as tourists, the young travelers befriended Cuban students. Fernando Murillo, contracted to turn politically apathetic young Cubans into “change agents,” headed to Santa Clara and connected with a cultural group that called itself “Revolution.” (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 12, 2014, photo, Hector Baranda, 26, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Santa Lucia, Cuba.  Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian nationals to Cuba to cultivate a new generation of political activists. Baranda said his friendship with the foreigners began on the side of a road, a few years earlier, when he and his girlfriend were thumbing a ride. It’s unclear any of the political objectives of the secret project were realized. Cubans contacted by the visiting foreigners were astonished to discover that they had been acting on behalf of the U.S. government. "They were our friends," said Baranda, who topped the Venezuelans’ list of potential converts.   (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

    HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 12, 2014, photo, Hector Baranda, 26, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Santa Lucia, Cuba. Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian nationals to Cuba to cultivate a new generation of political activists. Baranda said his friendship with the foreigners began on the side of a road, a few years earlier, when he and his girlfriend were thumbing a ride. It’s unclear any of the political objectives of the secret project were realized. Cubans contacted by the visiting foreigners were astonished to discover that they had been acting on behalf of the U.S. government. "They were our friends," said Baranda, who topped the Venezuelans’ list of potential converts. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 12, 2014, photo, Hector Baranda, 26, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Santa Lucia, Cuba.  Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian nationals to Cuba to cultivate a new generation of political activists. Baranda said his friendship with the foreigners began on the side of a road, a few years earlier, when he and his girlfriend were thumbing a ride. It’s unclear any of the political objectives of the secret project were realized. Cubans contacted by the visiting foreigners were astonished to discover that they had been acting on behalf of the U.S. government. "They were our friends," said Baranda, who topped the Venezuelans’ list of potential converts.   (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

    HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 12, 2014, photo, Hector Baranda, 26, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Santa Lucia, Cuba. Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian nationals to Cuba to cultivate a new generation of political activists. Baranda said his friendship with the foreigners began on the side of a road, a few years earlier, when he and his girlfriend were thumbing a ride. It’s unclear any of the political objectives of the secret project were realized. Cubans contacted by the visiting foreigners were astonished to discover that they had been acting on behalf of the U.S. government. "They were our friends," said Baranda, who topped the Venezuelans’ list of potential converts. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this April 1, 2014, photo, the headquarters for the U.S. Agency for International Development is seen in Washington. Six days after Cuban police arrested Alan Gross, an American contractor working on a clandestine operation, the U.S. government agency that paid for his trip was at it again, signing up a young Costa Rican for another secret mission to the island.  The project was part of a larger USAID program to "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society" and usher in a political Cuban spring. At the helm was Creative Associates International, a Washington-based company that earns tens of millions of dollars in USAID contracts. From an office in San Jose, Costa Rica, Creative Associates ran both the traveler’s program and a secret "Cuban Twitter" project, known as ZunZuneo.  (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

    HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this April 1, 2014, photo, the headquarters for the U.S. Agency for International Development is seen in Washington. Six days after Cuban police arrested Alan Gross, an American contractor working on a clandestine operation, the U.S. government agency that paid for his trip was at it again, signing up a young Costa Rican for another secret mission to the island. The project was part of a larger USAID program to "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society" and usher in a political Cuban spring. At the helm was Creative Associates International, a Washington-based company that earns tens of millions of dollars in USAID contracts. From an office in San Jose, Costa Rica, Creative Associates ran both the traveler’s program and a secret "Cuban Twitter" project, known as ZunZuneo. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 11, 2014, photo, Cuban students exit Marta Abreu Central University in Santa Clara, Cuba. Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian nationals to Cuba to cultivate a new generation of political activists. Often posing as tourists, the young travelers befriended Cuban students. Fernando Murillo, contracted to turn politically apathetic young Cubans into “change agents,” headed to Santa Clara and connected with a cultural group that called itself “Revolution,” a modest outfit of street artists devoted to electronic music and video. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)
  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 9, 2014, photo, Fernando Murillo, a founder of the human rights group Fundacion Operacion Gaya Internacional, talks with The Associated Press in San Jose, Costa Rica. Murillo had been contracted by Creative Associates to turn Cuba’s politically apathetic young people into "change agents." Six days after Cuban police arrested American contractor Alan Gross, the U.S. government agency that had paid for his trip signed up Murillo for another secret U.S. mission to the island. When he first arrived in Cuba, however, Murillo advocated a seemingly non-political agenda, which included collaborating with Cuban organizations on youth volunteerism and the cultivation of coconut paper, bananas and Cuba’s national flower, the mariposa blanca.  (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - FILE - In this Nov. 27, 2012, file photo, provided by James L. Berenthal, jailed American Alan Gross poses during a visit by Rabbi Elie Abadie and U.S. lawyer James L. Berenthal at Finlay military hospital as he serves a prison sentence in Havana, Cuba. Six days after Cuban police arrested Gross, an American contractor working on a clandestine operation, the U.S. government agency that had paid for his trip signed up a young Costa Rican for another secret mission to the island.  (AP Photo/James L. Berenthal, File)
  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - A woman walks in front of the building that once housed the human rights group Fundacion Operacion Gaya Internacional in Heredia, Costa Rica, on July 9, 2014. Fernando Murillo was the charismatic head of the group and he'd been contracted by Creative Associates to turn Cuba’s politically apathetic young people into "change agents." Murillo was an idealist devoted to human rights. A former boy scout, he had no experience in undercover work, yet would soon face off against one of the world’s most sophisticated counter-intelligence services, on a mission for Cuba’s adversary, the U.S. Before his trip to Havana on April 5, 2010, Murillo was given basic security training. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 11, 2014, photo, Manuel Barbosa, 25, speaks during an interview with Associated Press in Santa Clara, Cuba. Fernando Murillo contacted Barbosa, a founder of the group "Revolution," while working on a clandestine operation by the Obama administration that dispatched Latin American youth to Cuba under the cover of health and civic programs to provoke unrest.  (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)
  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 11, 2014, photo, Manuel Barbosa, 25, shows the logo of his "Revolution" audiovisual project during an interview with The Associated Press in Santa Clara, Cuba. Fernando Murillo contacted Barbosa, a founder of the group, while working on a clandestine operation by the Obama administration that dispatched Latin American youth to Cuba under the cover of health and civic programs to provoke unrest. Barbosa said he was initially open to collaboration with the foreigners but was never told they were working for the U.S. "They presented themselves as a non-governmental organization," Barbosa said. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)
  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014  - In this July 11, 2014, photo, Manuel Barbosa, 25, shows a tattoo of his “Revolution” cultural group during an interview with The Associated Press in Santa Clara, Cuba. Fernando Murillo contacted Barbosa, a founder of the group, while working on a clandestine operation by the Obama administration that dispatched Latin American youth to Cuba under the cover of health and civic programs to provoke unrest. Barbosa said he was initially open to collaboration with the foreigners but was never told they were working for the U.S. "They presented themselves as a non-governmental organization," Barbosa said. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)
  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - Photographs of Venezuelan Lawyer, Zaimar Castillo, are shown with other documents obtained by the Associated Press and photographed in Washington, Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. Creative Associates, a Washington based company hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development, contracted with Castillo who ran an NGO called Renova. Members of Renova we trained and deployed to Cuba’s college campuses. Their “cover story,” according to an internal document, was that they were visiting Cuban friends. Their mission, documents and interviews show, was to recruit university students with the long-term goal of turning them against their government. This was part of a program that secretly dispatched young Latin Americans to Cuba that put those foreigners in danger even after a U.S. contractor was hauled away to a Cuban jail. (AP Photo)
  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 11, 2014, photo, a Cuban student tries to flag down a taxi at the exit of Marta Abreu Central University in Santa Clara, Cuba. Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian nationals to Cuba to cultivate a new generation of political activists. Often posing as tourists, the young travelers befriended Cuban students. Fernando Murillo, contracted to turn politically apathetic young Cubans into “change agents,” headed to Santa Clara and connected with a cultural group that called itself “Revolution.” (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)
  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 12, 2014, photo, Hector Baranda, 26, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Santa Lucia, Cuba.  Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian nationals to Cuba to cultivate a new generation of political activists. Baranda said his friendship with the foreigners began on the side of a road, a few years earlier, when he and his girlfriend were thumbing a ride. It’s unclear any of the political objectives of the secret project were realized. Cubans contacted by the visiting foreigners were astonished to discover that they had been acting on behalf of the U.S. government. "They were our friends," said Baranda, who topped the Venezuelans’ list of potential converts.   (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)
  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this July 12, 2014, photo, Hector Baranda, 26, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Santa Lucia, Cuba.  Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian nationals to Cuba to cultivate a new generation of political activists. Baranda said his friendship with the foreigners began on the side of a road, a few years earlier, when he and his girlfriend were thumbing a ride. It’s unclear any of the political objectives of the secret project were realized. Cubans contacted by the visiting foreigners were astonished to discover that they had been acting on behalf of the U.S. government. "They were our friends," said Baranda, who topped the Venezuelans’ list of potential converts.   (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)
  • HOLD FOR RELEASE AT 12:01 A.M., EDT ON MONDAY, AUG. 4, 2014 - In this April 1, 2014, photo, the headquarters for the U.S. Agency for International Development is seen in Washington. Six days after Cuban police arrested Alan Gross, an American contractor working on a clandestine operation, the U.S. government agency that paid for his trip was at it again, signing up a young Costa Rican for another secret mission to the island.  The project was part of a larger USAID program to "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society" and usher in a political Cuban spring. At the helm was Creative Associates International, a Washington-based company that earns tens of millions of dollars in USAID contracts. From an office in San Jose, Costa Rica, Creative Associates ran both the traveler’s program and a secret "Cuban Twitter" project, known as ZunZuneo.  (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

An Obama administration program secretly dispatched young Latin Americans to Cuba using the cover of health and civic programs to provoke political change, a clandestine operation that put those foreigners in danger even after a U.S. contractor was hauled away to a Cuban jail.

Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian young people to Cuba in hopes of ginning up rebellion. The travelers worked undercover, often posing as tourists, and traveled around the island scouting for people they could turn into political activists.

In one case, the workers formed an HIV-prevention workshop that memos called “the perfect excuse” for the program’s political goals – a gambit that could undermine America’s efforts to improve health globally.

But their efforts were fraught with incompetence and risk, an Associated Press investigation found: Cuban authorities questioned who was bankrolling the travelers. The young workers nearly blew their mission to “identify potential social-change actors.” One said he got a paltry, 30-minute seminar on how to evade Cuban intelligence, and there appeared to be no safety net for the inexperienced workers if they were caught.

“Although there is never total certainty, trust that the authorities will not try to harm you physically, only frighten you,” read a memo obtained by the AP. “Remember that the Cuban government prefers to avoid negative media reports abroad, so a beaten foreigner is not convenient for them.”

In all, nearly a dozen Latin Americans served in the program in Cuba, for pay as low as $5.41 an hour.

The AP found USAID and its contractor, Creative Associates International, continued the program even as U.S. officials privately told their government contractors to consider suspending travel to Cuba after the arrest of contractor Alan Gross, who remains imprisoned after smuggling in sensitive technology.

“We value your safety,” one senior USAID official said in an email. “The guidance applies to ALL travelers to the island, not just American citizens,” another official said.

The revelations of the USAID program come as the White House faces questions about the once-secret “Cuban Twitter” project, known as ZunZuneo. That program, launched by USAID in 2009 and uncovered by the AP in April, established a primitive social media network under the noses of Cuban officials. USAID’s inspector general is investigating that program, which ended in September 2012.

Officials said USAID launched “discreet” programs like ZunZuneo to increase the flow of information in a country that heavily restricts it. But the AP’s earlier investigation found ZunZuneo was political in nature and drew in subscribers unaware that the service was paid for by the U.S. government.

“USAID and the Obama administration are committed to supporting the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their own future,” the agency said in response to written questions from the AP. “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.”

Creative Associates declined to comment, referring questions to USAID.

Both ZunZuneo and the travelers program were part of a larger, multimillion-dollar effort by USAID to effect change in politically volatile countries, government data show. But the programs reviewed by the AP didn’t appear to achieve their goals and operated under an agency known more for its international-aid work than stealthy operations. The CIA recently pledged to stop using vaccine programs to gather intelligence, such as one in Pakistan that targeted Osama bin Laden.

The travelers program was launched when newly inaugurated President Obama’s administration was talking 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.

Drawing on documents and interviews worldwide, the AP found the travelers program went to extensive lengths to hide the workers’ activities. They were to communicate in code: “I have a headache” meant they suspected they were being monitored by Cuban authorities; “Your sister is ill” was an order to cut their trip short.

“We worked it so that the government here didn’t know we were traveling to Cuba and helping these groups,” said Yajaira Andrade, a former administrator with a Venezuelan organization. “Because that was when (President Hugo) 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.”

To evade Cuban authorities, travelers installed innocent-looking content on their laptops to mask sensitive information they were carrying. They also used encrypted memory sticks to hide their files and sent obviously encrypted emails using a system that might have drawn suspicion.

It is illegal in Cuba to work with foreign democracy-building programs. Nevertheless, one contract was signed days after Gross’ detention.

“They arrested a contractor from another agency. That could be dangerous,” one Skype message between two project workers would later read. “Thank God he’s not one of ours.”

Documents show Creative Associates approved the use of the travelers’ relatives to carry cash to the Cuban contacts. But the family members weren’t to be told that the funds were from the U.S. government.

Hector Baranda, who was a college student in Cuba when he was befriended by a group of traveling Venezuelans, said he was surprised to hear from the AP they were working for the U.S. government and had profiled him.

“How would you feel if you offered your sincere friendship and received this kind of news?” Baranda asked.

The travelers’ project was paid for under the same pot of federal money that paid for the ZunZuneo program. But USAID has yet to provide the AP with a complete copy of the Cuban contracts under a Freedom of Information Act request filed more than three months ago.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who was in office during the program and is a likely Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, said in her new book “Hard Choices” that she was pleased “to see change slowly creeping into the country.”

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