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Leahy: Reported USAID HIV Ruse in Cuba 'Worse Than Irresponsible'

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The U.S. Agency for International Development's top appropriator is not amused with a new Associated Press report about the agency's activities in Cuba.  

Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittee warned of the consequences of the effort to the reputation of USAID.  

"It is one thing to support nascent Cuban civil society organizations, if USAID's role is disclosed in advance to participants and beneficiaries. It is quite another to concoct an HIV/AIDS workshop to promote a political agenda," Leahy said in a statement. "If that is what happened here it is worse than irresponsible. 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 AP reported early Monday morning that a USAID contractor "sent nearly a dozen neophytes from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Peru to gin up opposition in Cuba" and held a workshop about preventing the spread of HIV.  

USAID issued a statement from spokesperson Matt Herrick in response to the AP report, agreeing with parts of it but then adding, "the story then goes on to make sensational claims against aid workers for supporting civil society programs and striving to give voice to these democratic aspirations. This is wrong."  

"USAID remains committed to balancing the realities of working in closed — particularly in places where we do not have a USAID mission and governments are hostile to U.S. assistance — with our commitment to transparency, and we continuously balance our commitment to transparency with the need for discretion in repressive environments," Herrick said. "In the end, USAID's goal is to continue to support democracy, governance and human rights activities in multiple settings, while providing the maximum transparency possible given the specific circumstances."  

Regardless of the purpose, USAID's top officials seem certain to face more questions from Leahy, who ripped USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah over the so-called "Cuban Twitter" program back in April at an agency budget hearing. That program came to light thanks to another AP report .  

"Whose idea was it for this specific program? I've read the legislation. The legislation doesn't say anything about setting up a cockamamie idea in Cuba with Twitter accounts and all on something that the Cubans would be so easy to discover," Leahy said at that time. "Whose idea was this specific program to go to Cuba, who? It’s a simple question."