Personal Essay: Recruited for Cuba Pro-Democracy Work / by Bear Guerra

It was October of 2008. We'd just returned from five weeks in Haiti thanks to a journalism fellowship from the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University, and I, alongside the other fellows, had given a short presentation about our experience to members of the general public.

Afterwards, a short man with longish gray hair and blue eyes approached me, enthusiastically: "So where are you originally from? Do you speak Spanish? How would you like to work on a reporting project in Cuba?" Something about the tone of his voice and his pushiness didn't allow me to trust him from the very beginning, but I took his business card nonetheless and gave him mine.

Jeff Kline. Photo via Along the Malecón.

Jeff Kline. Photo via Along the Malecón.

Cuba has fascinated me since I was a kid growing up in Caracas, and not just because of Fidel Castro and his radical sociopolitical experiment. I'll never forgive myself for turning down an offer I got once to travel to Cuba from Venezuela's western Caribbean coast by motorboat. It would have only taken a couple of hours, I was told, but at the time even I knew that this could have been a disastrous voyage. For one reason or another, a visit to Cuba would never materialize. And now, a stranger named Jeff Kline was trying to convince me that I would be perfect for his Cuba project.

Soon after our presentation, Kline emailed me and another fellow, and within a couple of days, we went to meet him inside a Dupont Circle office building. A couple other young and naive Latino journalists sat there in the big white office, while Kline and a woman who said she worked for a nonprofit called "Progreso Internacional" showed us a multimedia presentation.

All they'd want us to do, they explained, was travel to Cuba in the Spring. We would bring some recording and cellular phone equipment into the country and distribute it among young people, while teaching them how to use it to send dispatches back to the U.S. We would then encourage them to enter personal stories for a radio contest. And one more thing, Kline said: they would pay us well, but only by direct deposit into a Mexican bank account that we would be in charge of setting up at a later date.

At this point, twenty minutes into the presentation, there was no doubt in my mind that we were being actively recruited for yet another ill-conceived program meant to mobilize young Cubans against the Castro government -- something along the lines of the infamous Radio Martí, but perhaps a bit more up to speed with modern times, technology, and youth culture. But who was this Jeff Kline, and how successful was his project at generating dissent? That's what I would often wonder for years after.

Needless to say, I never signed up for this, and neither did my friend. When the news about USAID subcontractor Alan Gross' arrest broke in 2009, I immediately thought of Kline. Now it turns out that Kline, too, was a private contractor for the U.S. State Department, running a secret program paid for by U.S. taxpayers. His name is associated with a "disappearing $450,000 contract" that Florida-based journalist Tracey Eaton has written extensively about. And, what's more, the State Department "did not consider [his Cuba mission] a success."