Washington, April 3 (AP): The US government masterminded the creation of a “Cuban Twitter”, a communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba, built with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks, The Associated Press has learned.
The project, which lasted more than two years and drew tens of thousands of subscribers, sought to evade Cuba’s stranglehold on the Internet with a primitive social media platform. First, the network would build a Cuban audience, mostly young people; then, the plan was to push them towards dissent.
Yet its users were neither aware it was created by a US agency with ties to the state department, nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.
The project, dubbed “ZunZuneo”, slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet, was publicly launched shortly after the 2009 arrest in Cuba of American contractor Alan Gross. He was imprisoned after travelling repeatedly to the country on a separate, clandestine USAID mission to expand Internet access using sensitive technology that only governments use.
It is unclear whether the scheme was legal under US law, which requires written authorisation of covert action by the President and congressional notification. Officials at the USAID would not say who had approved the programme or whether the White House was aware of it.
USAID administrator Rajiv Shah said today that it was not a covert programme, though “parts of it were done discreetly” in order to protect the people involved. Shah said on MSNBC that a study by the US Government Accountability Office found the project to be consistent with the law.
At minimum, details uncovered by the AP appear to muddy the US Agency for International Development’s longstanding claims that it does not conduct covert actions, and the details could undermine the agency’s mission to deliver aid to the world’s poor and vulnerable — an effort that requires the trust and cooperation of foreign governments.