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Human Rights

State Dept. defends paying $31,530 to Cuban company with reputed regime ties, avoids interviewing key witnesses

The State Dept. told Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar it stands by the story of a so-called “Mipyme” small enterprise, and did not even bother to talk to two young refugees who say they were fired for criticizing the Castro military dictatorship

State Dept. defends paying $31,530 to Cuban company with reputed regime ties, avoids interviewing key witnesses
State Dept. defends paying $31,530 to Cuban company with reputed regime ties, avoids interviewing key witnesses | ADN America: Illustration with Shutterstock & Facebook

May 21, 2024 4:30pm

Updated: June 3, 2024 2:27pm

The Department of State (DOS) is defending its decision to pay tens of thousands of dollars to a small but controversial Cuban company that worked for the U.S. Embassy in Havana–despite claims from two former employees that the entity is tied to the regime’s economic apparatus–and retaliated against them after one of them, Cuban artist Álvaro Hernández, posted, “down with the dictatorship” on social media.

The company, MadWoman, which styles itself as a “Mipyme” (Cuban micro, small, and medium-sized enterprise), is a Havana-based marketing agency, which the DOS admits has been paid $31,530 since last year to provide marketing services for U.S. embassy events, according to documents reviewed by ADN. 

MadWoman has claimed their company operates entirely independently of the regime, and in a May 21, 2024 response the Bureau of Legislative Affairs sent to Congressional Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, the DOS defended its relationship with the entity and even vigorously defended the Havana-based company’s version of events over their former employees–despite the two young Cuban men telling ADN they were never even contacted by the State Department to ask them what happened. 

In the Tuesday letter to Rep. Salazar, Assistant Secretary for the  Bureau of Legislative Affairs Naz Durakoğlu writes that MadWoman “represented to the State Department that “it did not terminate the employee in question and has not penalized any employees over their personal views,” and asserting that at least one of the employees left on their own accord–despite the pair fleeing Cuba to seek asylum in the United States since the incident occurred last year. 

In a telephone interview with Mr. Hernandez on Tuesday, the young Cuban refugee told ADN that no one from the State Department contacted him to get his side of the story. 

“I am speechless,” Mr. Hernandez told ADN when he found out MadWoman denied the allegations. “What reason would I have to lie? I think it’s absurd they can lie this way, and it’s so disrespectful to me.”

Mr. Hernandez also says, “I have people who witnessed what happened,” a reference to his partner, Alberto Gongora, who also worked at MadWoman. “The only thing that comes to mind to explain why they lied is that they are desperate,” he said. 

In addition to defending its past actions doing business with MadWoman in the congressional letter, ADN has learned from a separate State Dept. document prepared for the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Accountability that the federal department still has active contracts with the company.

MadWoman first came on the radar of the Cuban media when ADN broke the initial story in February, exposing the ties between the Mipyme MadWoman and the U.S. Embassy in Havana, following numerous reports in the Cuban press about the Álvaro Hernández firing. ADN tried contacting MadWoman to get their side of the story, but the Cuban entity never responded to its inquiries. 

According to another document obtained by ADN, the $31,530 figure paid to MadWoman by the U.S government for corresponds to an average of 13 purchase orders: “six were for migration-related messaging/campaigns, five for designs for strategic programs (Black History Month 2023 and 2024, Pride Month 2023, a musical exchange with local university students, and a film diplomacy program), one promoting bilingualism, and one Ukraine-related campaign in 2023.”

The amount is a significant sum of money in a country where the minimum wage averages only CUP 2,100 ($5.67). Mr. Góngora told ADN that MadWoman paid him 1000 CUP, $2.70 at today's exchange rate, for the embassy's Black History Month campaign.

ADN had already reported that Madwoman was contracted to produce “migration-related messaging/campaigns” aimed at deterring illegal migration from Cuba. 

However, evidence suggests the awareness campaign was out of touch with reality, as ADN reported that the same staff involved in producing the campaigns for the Embassy, Mr. Alvaro Hernandez and his partner Alberto Gongora, left the island shortly after the Mipyme fired Mr. Alvaro Hernandez who is in a relationship with Mr. Gongora. 

MadWoman as a company was largely unknown until it fired Hernández, who said the agency’s Director of Operations, Laura Trujillo, and its Chief Strategist, Disley Alfonso Santos, told him in a meeting that his post was the reason behind his dismissal, according to his relocation. 

“When I got to the meeting, they showed me my post on X and asked me: “What is this?” Hernández recalls. “That is what I think,” the 22-year-old says he replied. “I didn’t say much during the whole conversation.” 

According to testimonials provided by two former employees of Madwoman, formally registered as MD Creativa S.R.L, Disley Alonso, one of Mipyme's owners, told Alvaro Hernandez that the entity was part of the Cuban government apparatus. Despite this, the State Department has active contracts with the entity.

“They gave me several reasons why they had to 'indefinitely separate me from my roles at the agency' since they were a government-owned company and couldn't have employees making such comments,” he recalls.

According to a MadWoman employee manual reviewed by ADN, the company requires its staff, contractors, and collaborators to “refrain from making posts or sharing content that may go against the policies established in the country [Cuba]."

Executive Editor

Gelet Martínez Fragela

Gelet Martínez Fragela is the founder and editor-in-chief of ADN America. She is a Cuban journalist, television producer, and political refugee who also founded ADN Cuba.