Transcript of press briefing Monday (Aug. 4) by U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on the subject of a reported effort by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to send Latin American youths into Cuba as covert “regime change” scouts. (For background in Progreso Weekly, click here.)
QUESTION: Does the Administration think it’s okay to use HIV clinics, health clinics, as a front for political activity in other countries?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would refute your description. I did read your story. Congress, as you know, funds democracy program in Cuba to empower Cubans to access more information and strengthen civil society. This workshop I think you’re referring to enabled support for Cuban civil society while providing a secondary benefit of addressing the desires Cubans express for information and training about HIV prevention. And we do programs, as you know, around the world that promote democracy and promote access to this type of information.
QUESTION: What’s a health clinic doing in a political program in an unfriendly country?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I think this is specifically a program that was promoting civil society engagement and allowing people to have access to information that they may not have otherwise had.
QUESTION: And did the participants know that this was a political program when they were invited to do an educational seminar on HIV/AIDS?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think the program – I, of course, was not a participant – but I think the program provided information and training about HIV prevention. That was a secondary benefit.
QUESTION: But the contractor said in the documents that this – they called it the perfect excuse for recruiting activists for a political program. Is that okay?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think – again, I think it’s important to take a step back here about the kind of programs we do around the world, which again, as you may be aware but I think others aren’t, is – are programs that we inform Congress of. The Congress is aware of our efforts to promote everything from civil society engagement to engagement in countries where people don’t have the benefit of open society as is they – as in a place like Cuba. There was a secondary benefit here which was providing information about these programs.
QUESTION: So in sum, you think it’s okay? Because a lot of health organizations who have seen what happened with the CIA’s program in Pakistan that has set back vaccinations and probably led to deaths –
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would hardly group all of these issues together. I know it’s enticing to do so, but there are a range of programs that this contractor – it’s important to note – was supporting. The HIV prevention workshop was part of a broader attempt to work with people about things they care about, yet independent of the government. So this was a small example among many. There were community cleanups, cultural activities, tree plantings. There was one HIV workshop and information was provided, which was a secondary benefit on an issue that people were concerned about.
QUESTION: And the contractor called it a success story in a report for USAID. Is that how you view it? Is that a success story?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think it’s important to note that we have civil society engagement programs around the world, including in Cuba, and this is a program or these types of programs are programs that Congress is certainly familiar with.
QUESTION: And what about sending young people into Cuba with very little training after Alan Gross? Is there any pause in doing that sort of thing? It seems very risky.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think the grantee provided assurances that it had appropriate security protocols in place, would strictly enforce those protocols. As you know, there were steps that were taken at the time, but certainly the security and safety of individuals participating in programs is certainly something to be cognizant of.
QUESTION: The details that we discovered certainly didn’t suggest that the security of the young people who were sent in was really thought through very well.
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I know you were looking at some publicly available information that wasn’t classified. I don’t know that I have much more to add on it.
QUESTION: It wasn’t classified, but also far from publicly available.
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I think others could have found it. But –
MS. PSAKI: Do you have other questions, or shall we move on to a new topic?
QUESTION: I have one just on this. Why shouldn’t the Cuban Government, which has accused you of trying to – accused you of promoting regime change activity in – on the island, why shouldn’t they see this as that, as such an effort?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think the USAID, as many people know, including governments around the world, have a longstanding history of supporting democracy and human rights. There are places some of these programs, including programs in Cuba, are operated in a discreet manner to help ensure the safety of those involved. This was not a program – this was a program that made information available. It wasn’t engaged with – it was engaged with local issues independent of the Cuban Government. So that was the focus of it.
QUESTION: Right. But you understand, given the U.S. history in Latin America, particularly in terms of regime change in the past, why shouldn’t the Cubans be suspicious? Why shouldn’t they think that this is something that is aimed at not simply educating their people but in fact changing and overthrowing their government?
MS. PSAKI: Because I think the facts about what the program are focused on are inconsistent with that view.
QUESTION: Don’t programs such as this actually endanger the work of people who are engaged in health and education and other humanitarian work under the USAID flag?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, Roz, I think there are a range of programs that USAID oversees. Again, these programs are fully – Congress is fully briefed on these programs, and they promote a range of information sharing in countries around the world. And this was obviously a program and this contract was one that was approved through that process.
QUESTION: But doesn’t anyone in the U.S. Government understand that this is undermining the very credibility that is needed in order for these programs, which are run directly by USAID and through other contractors, namely NGOs, who are counting on the goodwill extended toward the U.S. Government in order to do their work effectively?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think you’re jumping a bit to a conclusion there, Roz. I think there are programs around the world that are oriented towards developing a more vibrant and capable civil society consistent with democracy promotion programs worldwide. And obviously, this contract was in line with that.
QUESTION: But I have heard from others who do this kind of work who say that when USAID deviates into an area that is better suited for another agency – and we’ll just leave it unmentioned here – that it makes it more dangerous for their employees to carry out the work that they are trying to do. Wouldn’t it be simpler to put up a firewall?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me just stop you there for a second, because I would hardly compare this to the work of other agencies. This was not a covert program. There are programs that are done discreetly in order to protect the safety of the people involved.
QUESTION: But the mission of the program undercuts the work which NGOs tell me that they are trying to conduct because the first thing that people will ask them is, “How do we know that you’re not CIA?”
MS. PSAKI: Well, strengthening a civil society and empowering a civil society to be more capable is something that that was the focus of this program. And that’s again, I think, what’s being communicated with any who have concerns.
QUESTION: Is the Secretary comfortable with this apparent mixing of missions?
MS. PSAKI: We would disagree with that characterization.
QUESTION: I want to go back to the idea of mixing of missions, because in the wake of the CIA’s activities in Pakistan we did see health workers killed and we have seen disease rates gone up, so it’s hard to refute the idea that using health missions as a cover for other activities, whether they be admirable ones like democracy promotion or not, has a really damaging effect on some U.S. priorities. Is that not recognized here in the building?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I think, Nicole, broadly speaking of course, the safety and security of health workers is certainly something that we’re not only focused on, we do a great deal of work to ensure that with a range of other agencies across the federal government. But what I’m trying to convey here is that this program, which is through a contact through USAID, was done in a consistent manner of promoting information, making it available through civil society groups, separate from the government. And I would not compare the two.
QUESTION: But Jen, you said it yourself that this served a dual purpose, and one of those purposes was not disclosed to the people. So why shouldn’t people be suspicious all over the world when USAID does these programs? They didn’t even declare this was USAID for that matter.
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, there are programs around the world that are focused on supporting independent youth groups, promoting more information to civil society, strengthening civil society around the world. I just wouldn’t – our view is we wouldn’t categorize it in that way.
QUESTION: You’re saying that overall it was a democracy-promotion program, a program to promote democracy?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I mean, I think there are a range – promoting a capable civil society is obviously – has a range of benefits.
QUESTION: Right. But promoting democracy is one of them? I mean, you guys do not regard Cuba as a democracy, do you?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, I think that there are –
QUESTION: So if you’re promoting something that is – that you say is antithetical to the Cuban Government’s way of ruling, governing, then clearly it’s aimed at regime change, no?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think I stated it was separate from the Cuban Government, that the purpose was to provide a range of interests – information that was of interest to the Cuban people.
QUESTION: But you’ve essentially said that a health workshop organized by USAID secretly in Cuba had a political purpose that was not declared.
MS. PSAKI: That’s not what I said.
QUESTION: Yeah, it –
MS. PSAKI: I think we’re ready to move on to the new topic.
QUESTION: I just would like confirmation on reports that Alan Gross has refused to see the new U.S. head of mission there and to ask if you’ve heard from his family about his decision. I think his spokesman put it that he’s just decided it is not worth living anymore. The U.S. Government has not gotten him out; I’m sure not for lack of trying. Do you feel like you could have done more?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Nicole, let me first say that Cuban authorities have unjustifiably kept Alan Gross in prison for more than four years merely for helping Cuban citizens gain access to the internet, a goal the Cuban Government now espouses. We keep his case at the forefront of discussions with the Cuban Government, make clear the importance the United States places on his welfare. And we engage also with a range of our foreign counterparts at the highest levels and urge them to advocate for his release. So we urgently reiterate our call for the Cuban Government to release him immediately.
Absent written authorization, there’s really not more information I can share about those specific reports. We’ve seen the same ones you have seen.
QUESTION: In view of the Alan Gross case, was it wise to continue these type of programs in Cuba?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I think as I stated previously, the security arrangements were – and I think I answered this a few minutes ago. The security arrangements are something that we receive assurances from by those we work with. That was the case here too.