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Story Publication logo June 4, 2011

Cuba Pro-Democracy Programs: Leave it to the CIA?


Cuban officials see U.S. democracy programs as covert operations reminiscent of '60s-style espionage. Pictured is a Havana museum piece: A cutting board that U.S. operatives used to hide secret messages to their collaborators in Cuba. Image by Tracey Eaton. Cuba, 2010

U.S. democracy programs in Cuba might be more effective if the CIA managed them instead of the State Department or the Agency for International Development, some congressional staffers say.

"These programs are not classified programs, but they are clandestine programs, which means that for purposes of transparency they have some real issues youve got to work through," said a Capitol Hill source who is knowledgeable about the programs.

"If we were to give the $20 million to the CIA, this would work a lot better because then they could put it in the hands of professionals who actually do this stuff."

An AID official declined to talk on the record for this story. AID officials have denied operating covert operations in Cuba.

Cuban authorities see things differently. They say U.S. officials have been trying to set up mobile communication systems in Cuba.

Eduardo Fontes Suárez, cybernetic specialist in counterintelligence in Cuba, gave his view of the U.S. strategy in a briefing that found its way onto YouTube in February 2011.

He said Alan Gross, an American development worker now jailed in Cuba, intended to set up 10 portable communication terminals known as BGANs, which stands for Broadband Global Area Network. The systems include a laptop, modem, satellite dish and cell phones.

"The idea, comrades, is to distribute this equipment and to establish national networks, and they want to supply members of these networks with cell phones with text messaging service," Fontes explained in a briefing to state security agents. "The modules we've operatively detected have mostly been high-performance Blackberry phones with satellite connectivity, which is paid for outside of Cuba, so they do not depend on our networks, nor do they pass through our supervision mechanisms."

Each BGAN terminal acts as a WiFi hotspot. According to Fontes, "…youve got a range…were talking about an area of a half mile to a mile. We can connect 25-30 machines, which are connected together."

Fontes said while Gross was setting up his BGAN terminals, other U.S.-paid operatives intended to establish separate groups of 10 BGANs each.

AID officials have revised democracy programs since Gross was arrested and are no longer sending BGAN systems into Cuba.

If the U.S. intends to try such plans again, "Get an intelligence agency to do it," one Capitol Hill source suggested.

"Dont send a guy to Cuba who doesnt speak Spanish and has a kick me sign on his back."

The State Department acknowledged the perils of working in Cuba.

"These programs are comparable to what we and other donors do to support democracy and human rights in repressive societies all over the world," the State Department said in a memo about the programs. "Possible counterintelligence penetration is a known risk in Cuba. Those who carry out our assistance are aware of such risks."

Florida journalist Tracey Eaton is researching democracy programs in Cuba with support from the non-profit Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. His blog is the Cuba Money Project and his email, [email protected].


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Democracy and Authoritarianism

Democracy and Authoritarianism

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