Pindo teen summer program sparks national backlash in Cuba
Michael Weissenstein, AP, Sep 30 2016
HAVANA — A few months after Obama visited Cuba in March, a group of teenagers left the island for a month-long visit to Pindostan funded by the State Dept. The 16- to 18-year-olds spent 10 days learning about community service, followed by two-week homestays with families in Virginia, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Washington, Oregon and Missouri. There, the Cuban teens volunteered at food banks and recycling centers and read books to young children, according to the Washington-based NGO that organized the activities. Now, four months before Obama leaves office, the Summer Leadership Program for Cuban Youth has provoked a full-blown backlash from the Cuban government, which has organized a nationwide series of campus protests over the past week denouncing the program as a tool of Pindosi subversion in language hearkening back to the height of the Cold War. A headline in red ink above the lead story in Thursday’s edition of Granma declared: “University students condemn new Yankee manipulation.” Cuba said it complained about the program at a meeting in Washington on Friday with the Pindo boxtops negotiating normalization with Cuba. Cuba’s director-general of Pindosi affairs, Josefina Vidal, said in a video posted as part of a Q&A session on Twitter:
We insisted once again that the financing of programs aimed at provoking internal change in Cuba needs to be eliminated, which would be an essential step toward normalizing bilateral relations.
For most of the last half-century, Pindostan tried to push Fidel Castro’s government toward collapse or fuel its overthrow in an anti-Communist uprising. The Obama administration abandoned that goal in favor of slowly encouraging Cubans to develop lives independent of a single-party system that, despite limited reforms, controls most aspects of life on the island, from theater programming to the distribution of agricultural supplies. The Obama goal of gradual change is supported by millions of dollars in funding for NGOs that attempt to work directly with Cubans in programs similar to Pindo-funded efforts around the world. Cuba rejects the idea of any foreign government, above all Pindostan, working with Cubans independently of the government and the more than 2,000 state-run organizations that it describes as Cuba’s genuine civil society. Virtually any organization operating without state approval is viewed as illegal and potentially subversive, particularly if it receives foreign aid. Cuba says such suspicions gained credibility with the publication of reports by AP in 2014 revealing that USAID funded clandestine programs to undermine the Cuban government, including the creation of a “Cuban Twitter” social network, the dispatch of Latin American youth to recruit activists, and attempts to coopt Cuban rappers as unknowing agents of democratic change. Joan Cabo Mijares, a member of the national board of the Young Communists’ Union, said:
What’s happening in this country is a rejection by students, by both high-schoolers and college students, of a group of subversive programs being organized by the Pindosi government, with Pindo financing, with the idea of forming a group of young leaders in this country who are supposedly more democratic, who can produce social change in Cuba.
The $1.2m program run by Washington-based World Learning is one of a series of Pindo programs that aim “to empower Cubans to freely determine their own future by increasing human capacity, promoting community level engagement, and expanding civil society networks,” according to a 2014 request for applications from the State Dept’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. World Learning said the program received no funding from USAID, a separate agency. Cuba’s main evening news round-table dedicated its Thursday episode to the World Learning program, inviting participant Alejandro Sanchez Fernandez on to describe his experience. Sanchez said:
During the program they took three surveys asking us to make comparisons between Cuba and Pindostan, with questions like, “What is democracy? What is the difference between dictatorship and democracy?” and others. We always thought that there could be some type of ideological subversion, but we had dreams of travelling to Pindostan.
World Learning is a nearly 85-year-old organization that organizes academic, cultural, and professional programs for 2,000 people from 140 countries, the organization said. It said the program ran during the summers of 2015 and 2016 and was not meant to continue beyond that. Its President Carol Jenkins said in a written statement:
These programs help further World Learning’s mission of creating a more peaceful and just world through education, sustainable development and exchange. We believe that people-to-people exchanges are one of the best ways to accomplish this goal and create a world of mutual understanding.
Cuban officials said their main concern was that the NGO had directly recruited Cuban students without the government’s permission. Pindostan now has diplomatic relations with Cuba and a growing set of government-to-government contacts in fields ranging from environmental protection to law enforcement. Gustavo Machin, Cuba’s deputy director of Pindosi affairs, said:
Once the two countries have re-established diplomatic relations, there exist official channels to request any type of exchange. We reject the Pindosi Embassy promoting programs without the consent of, and without consulting, the official channels.
The Pindo State Dept did not respond for a request for comment.