US Government Outed for Secretly Creating Social Networking Site for Cubans

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Source: Associated Press, “US Penned Political Satire in Secret ‘Cuban Twitter,'” accessnorthga.com, Apr. 8, 2014
The US Agency for International Development (USAID), a government organization that promotes economic development and combats poverty abroad, secretly created a social networking site designed to stir unrest and undermine the Cuban government, according to an Apr. 3, 2014 investigation by the Associated Press (AP).

The program, known as ZunZuneo (the sound of a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet), drew nearly 40,000 subscribers and lasted more than two years. Cuban users were unaware of the American origins of the program. According to AP, the plan was to stoke political unrest and undermine the Castro regime by secretly hiring writers to supply the social network with texts critical of the government. ZunZuneo was able to bypass Cuba’s strict restrictions on internet use (including the use of Twitter) by using text messages as the primary means of communication. 

Cuban officials allegedly and unsuccessfully attempted to trace the text messages and hack into ZunZuneo. USAID told AP that ZunZuneo ceased operations in Sep. 2012 when a Congressional grant for the program ended. Congress has given USAID more than $200 million in funding for “democracy assistance” programs in Cuba since 1996. According to interviews and documents obtained by the AP, USAID and its contractors established shell companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to disguise the funding for ZunZuneo, and recruited contractors to work on the project under false pretenses. It is currently unknown where the idea for ZunZuneo originated or whether President Obama knew about it.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a hearing about the revelations that “there is risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a U.S. government-funded activity. There is the clandestine nature of the program that was not disclosed to the appropriations subcommittee with oversight responsibility… This one from the get-go had no possibility of working.”

“The purpose of the program was to support access to information and to allow people to communicate with each other,” according to USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah. Shah disputed the AP investigation, stating his agency’s program was “absolutely not” covert. USAID, in a statement defending its operation, said that it is “proud of its work in Cuba to provide basic humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people.”

Following the Jan. 1, 1959 Fidel Castro-led revolution overthrowing US-backed President Batista and establishing Cuba as the first Communist state in the Western Hemisphere, US President John F. Kennedy signed Proclamation 3447 on Feb. 3, 1962 to declare “an embargo upon all trade between the United States and Cuba.” The United Nations has denounced the Cuban embargo for 22 straight years. The vote against the embargo was 188-2 in 2013, with only Israel supporting the United States.

Sources:

Associated Press, “US Penned Political Satire in Secret ‘Cuban Twitter,'” accessnorthga.com, Apr. 8, 2014

Associated Press, “USAID Chief Grilled by Sen. Leahy for ‘Cuba Twitter’ Idea,” nbcnews.com, Apr. 8, 2014

Associated Press, “U.S. Secretly Built ‘Cuban Twitter’ to Stir Unrest, AP Reports,” nbcnews.com, Apr. 3, 2014

Karen DeYoung, “Alan Gross, U.S. Contractor Held in Cuba, Goes on Hunger Strike,” washingtonpost.com, Apr. 8, 2014

Jack Gillum, Desmond Butler, and Peter Orsi, “‘Cuban Twitter’ Overtly Political, Poking Castros,” bigstory.ap.org, Apr. 8, 2014

United States Agency for International Development, “Who We Are,” usaid.gov (accessed Apr. 9, 2014)