By Michael Sprague
Our first day in Havana we went to the headquarters of ICAP ‐ Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos, or the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples, where we would have some meetings. The first meeting we had, and one of the most interesting people we interviewed, was Raul Capote, a former history professor at the university of Havana who claimed to have worked for both the Cuban security agencies and the CIA. He told us he took actions on behalf of the CIA related to regime change by promoting ideology among the youth as part of an operation called “Project Genesis”.
This operation was financed by USAID and implemented through Creative Associates, and the focus was to form youth leaders at the university, which he claimed was based off of a model of an operation in Yugoslavia. Project Genesis was supposed to give scholarships to young leaders in Cuba who might promote democracy or policies that aimed to change Cuba, while also creating internet and cellphone networks outside government control, which he described it as USAID‐built “Cuban Twitter”. Though it was meant to be non‐violent, there was “inevitably” some violence, he said, but didn’t elaborate further.
After Fidel stepped down in 2006 the actions of the project were accelerated, and became a plan to fabricate confrontations in media studios to create the image of chaos and violence across Cuba and mass human rights violations. Professor Capote was then meant to call for US military intervention. However, the proper conditions in Cuba never came to pass, but, he said, this operation was carried out in Libya in 2011. He told us that now with normal relations this program of student leadership and technology development can be seen as helping communication, whereas before normalization it was for regime change.
There are many benefits, he said, to being “good neighbors”. He said that relations between our two nations could become much better, and mentioned the fact that the U.S. was the first visit of Fidel Castro when he took power. However some important issues remained unresolved, he said, such as many criminals from the Batista regime who now live in the U.S., as well as some “very dangerous people”. He also said that the United States was waging “economic war” on Cuba. He hastened to add though that many Cuban people have relatives who live in the U.S. and follow American culture closely so the distinction between the people and their government is clear, and the Cuban people don’t hold the American people responsible for the decisions of policymakers.
He was asked what he thought the reason was for the CIA treating Cuba as a threat after the end of the Soviet era in the 90s, and he answered that it was because of the self‐perpetuating legacy of previous laws and actions, as well as the blockade and various economic measures, which simply needed justification. He stated “Cuba has never committed any terrorist acts, or hosted terrorist groups,” and also that “Cuba has never had any chemical or biological weapons”. He also said that the reason no actions taken by the CIA in Cuba were ever successful was because they didn’t understand Cuba very well, and he didn’t think there was ever a change in the CIA’s policies or actions towards Cuba, no matter what administration was in the White House. He claims there were 600 attempts on Fidel’s life, which he said actually fueled the revolution longer because it inspired people to defend their leader.
The majority of Cubans support the current government, he said, and he’s not worried that closer ties with the U.S. will threaten that. Most leaders in Cuba are young, and there are many women leaders, he said. The average age for people elected to the National Assembly was 47, with the youngest member only 17 years old. The Cuban government gives jobs to all who graduate, though he admitted they are not always the job that are desired. Brain drain is a challenge, as for all developing countries, but Cuba has very high human capital, he said.
ICAP was pleased with the change of policy between Cuba and the US, which they had been hoping for but not expecting. He said that the news was well received all over Cuba, and seen as a brave move to bring the economic reality of the contentious relationship into the political realm where it belonged. He also expressed hope that the rapprochement could lead to future collaborations on things like drug trafficking and people smuggling.
He was also asked about the swap of an USAID contractor for the remaining members of the famous Cuban Five that took place when the new policies were announced. The exchange of Alan Gross for “heroes” was just a goodwill gesture on both sides, not an intelligence quid‐pro‐quo, he said.
There are many false impressions of Cuba in American media, he claimed, especially that it’s heavily militarized. Cubans follow US news and media very closely, and though there are restrictions,”all information is impossible to control”. There is internet access at universities, clubs, cafes, and the phenomenon of “the package”‐ buying and trading hard drives full of content‐ which is how most media in Cuba is consumed. This, he told us, was originally thought up by a CIA officer as a method of cultural subversion.
I found the talk with him to be extremely interesting, not only for the spy stories but also for the worldview they came from. While it may seem beyond far‐fetched to think the chaotic events leading up to U.S. involvement in Yugoslavia or Libya were faked inside television studios, it is also very revealing that educational grants and communications projects, while readily acknowledged as a benign gesture of goodwill during friendly times, were seen, during times of less trust, as an attack on the government, and on Cuban society as a whole.
This interview impressed on me how important it is for the United States to be very sensitive to the perspectives of the Cuban people and the Cuban leadership of our shared history and our actions and policies now. When there is trust between both sides, a very bright and constructive future is possible, but we’ll have to listen closely to each other to make sure that trust exists.