Cuba: USAID head quits after latest scandal

On Dec. 17, less than a week after the Associated Press reported on a failed effort by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to co-opt Cuban hip-hop artists, agency administrator Rajiv Shah announced that he was leaving his post in February. Shah's announcement came the same day as news that the US was moving towards normalizing relations with Cuba and that the Cuban government had released imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross. Shah didn't give a reason for his resignation but said he had "mixed emotions." In a statement released that day US president Barack Obama said Shah, who has headed the USAID since December 2009, "has been at the center of my administration's efforts to advance our global development agenda." (AP, Dec. 17)

According to a Dec. 11 AP article, documents obtained by the wire service show that from 2009 to 2011 USAID "secretly infiltrated Cuba's underground hip-hop movement, recruiting unwitting rappers to spark a youth movement against the government." The program, which the AP describes as "amateurish and profoundly unsuccessful," was run through Washington, DC-based private contractor Creative Associates International and employed the services of Serbian rock promoter Rajko Bozic, who claims to have been part of the Serbian student movement that helped remove Slobodan Milosevic from power in 2000. The project's contractors ended up "putting themselves and their targets at risk" and "compromising Cuba's vibrant hip-hop culture," AP investigative reporters concluded. (AP, Dec. 11)

AP reported earlier this year on two other failed USAID "democracy promotion" projects, also contracted through Creative Associates: the ZunZuneo "Cuban Twitter" program and an effort to build an anti-government youth movement. All three projects were carried out during Shah's tenure as USAID administrator, although they appear to have started earlier.

Shah, a former executive with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, preceded his resignation with a visit to Haiti over the weekend of Dec. 19. There he signed a partnership agreement with the healthcare nonprofit Partners in Health's Haitian branch, Zanmi Lasante; he reportedly also met with Partners in Health co-founder Paul Farmer, who was the Obama's administration's first choice to head USAID. (Devex, Dec. 17) Like the Cuban programs, USAID projects for Haiti have experienced a number of failures under Shah. The "New Settlement Program," for example, was supposed to build 4,000 houses by 2012 to replace homes lost in the earthquake that struck southern Haiti in January 2010; the cost was to be about $53 million. Only about 816 houses had been built when USAID's inspector general issued a report in April 2014, but the program's cost had soared to $90 million. According to a Nov. 20 news item by the DC-based nonprofit Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), 750 of the houses are so badly constructed that they will need millions of dollars of repairs. (CEPR, Nov. 20; Fiscal Times, Dec. 9)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, December 21.