News / USA

US Efforts to Create 'Cuban Twitter' Unmasked

US: USAID-Backed Social Media Network in Cuba Was Not Secreti
X
Mariama Diallo
April 04, 2014 1:03 PM
The White House says a social media communications network created by the U.S. government in Cuba was a development program, not a covert operation. The Associated Press reported earlier that the network sponsored by USAID was designed to undermine Cuba's communist government by building a text-messaging service that could be used to organize political demonstrations. Mariama Diallo has details.

US: USAID-Backed Social Media Network in Cuba Was Not Secret

The U.S. government is coming under scrutiny for funding a secretive social network designed to gather information on Cuban democracy advocates and help organize social protests.

According to documents obtained by the Associated Press, the U.S. Agency for International Development – or USAID – allegedly funneled money through a series of private corporations to fund the social network called “ZunZuneo.”

USAID and the White House say the program was a legal development project and not a covert operation.

Washington has often cited the use social media like Twitter in helping democracy activists living in repressive regimes to organize protests.

For example, while Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton praised the “American inventions” Twitter and Facebook for “helping to connect people around democracy and human rights and freedom” in places like Egypt and Tunisia.

Now, add to that list of American inventions, the now-defunct social network “ZunZuneo,” slang for the tweeting sound of a Cuban hummingbird.

As reported by the Associated Press, which says it obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents related to its operation, ZunZuneo was a Twitter-like service targeted specifically at Cubans with smart-phones.

By sending short text messages from a network of overseas web servers with no connection to the U.S. government, ZunZuneo was designed to evade Havana’s Internet censorship while helping organize smart mobs and other social protests.

According to one USAID document obtained by the AP, it was hoped ZunZuneo could “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society” in Cuba.
 
ZunZuneo Facebook logoZunZuneo Facebook logo
x
ZunZuneo Facebook logo
ZunZuneo Facebook logo
The AP says the documents detail how USAID intended to build the Cuban network by initially sending out “non-controversial content,” such as sports and weather news, only later to introduce political content designed to rally opposition to the communist rule of Raul and Fidel Castro.

However, the network never proved successful enough to send any such texts.
 
Several private corporations, some of them with no knowledge of USAID’s involvement, and a bank in the Cayman Islands were contracted to build ZunZuneo.

One of those contractors, Creative Associates International of Washignton D.C., told VOA it could not comment on ZunZuneo without the permission of USAID.
 
In an emailed statement, USAID spokesman Matt Herrick said “USAID is proud of its work in Cuba to provide basic humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and universal freedoms, and to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people."

"All of our work in Cuba, including this project, was reviewed in detail in 2013 by the Government Accountability Office and found to be consistent with U.S. law and appropriate under oversight controls,” the statement said.

Speaking Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that ZunZuneo was a development program, and not a covert intelligence operation.

Its connection to the U.S. government were kept discreet, he said, for the protection of its Cuban subscribers:

“This was an effort, one of a variety of efforts that the United States engages in, as part of its development mission, to promote the flow of free information, to promote the engagement by citizens of countries, especially societies that are non-permissive, because we believe that is part of the essential right of every individual on Earth,” Carney said.

The White House and USAID said the program was lawful and fully debated by Congress.

However some members of USAID’s oversight committees disagree.
 
U.S. Senator Pat Leahy, chair of USAID’s appropriations subcommittee, told the AP “On the face of it, there are several aspects about this that are troubling.”

That includes, he says, the thousands of unsuspecting Cubans who subscribed and texted on ZunZuneo without ever knowing it was a project run by the U.S. government.

One of those subscribers was Ernesto Guerra Valdes, a journalism student living in Havana.

Valdes told the AP he liked using ZunZuneo and at one point had a thousand other followers on the service until it suddenly stopped operation. He said he and his friends had no idea about who was actually behind it, until now.

“If tomorrow we discover that ZunZuneo was part of USAID or some other similar project, my first reaction would be ‘Damn!’" he said. "I was on the service for so long and never realized what it really was.”

At its peak, ZunZuneo had about 40,000 subscribers, until it suddenly ceased operations in 2012.

Traces of the service have largely been erased from the web. Ownership of the website zunzuneo.com has been taken over by domain proxy holding firm, leaving the site devoid of content.

There is a Facebook fan page for ZunZuneo, but with only 300-some followers and no new posts since May of 2012, it’s largely inert.

Only a few archived screen-grabs of the operating site exist, mostly with instructions in Spanish of how to subscribe and send messages to friends.

Like USAID, Voice of America is funded by the United States government.

Some VOA programming on health issues and entrepreneurship and some journalism training is funded by USAID.

VOA maintains editorial control over those initiatives, and bases its news coverage solely on sound journalistic principles.

Doug Bernard

dbjohnson+voanews.com

Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

You May Like

Photogallery Pistorius Sentenced, Taken to Prison

Pistorius, convicted of culpable homicide in shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, will likely serve about 10 months of five-year sentence, before completing it under house arrest More

UN to Aid Central Africa in Polio Vaccinations

Synchronized vaccinations will be conducted after Cameroon reports a fifth case of the wild polio virus in its territory More

WHO: Ebola Vaccine May Be in Use by Jan.

WHO assistant director Dr. Marie Paule Kieny says clinical trials of Ebola vaccines are underway or planned in Europe, US and Africa More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Not Again from: Canada
April 03, 2014 6:30 PM
And who is upset for trying to help people communicate; I guess Cuban gvmt agents would be very unhappy and so would be Castro/supporters; a contraversy is being created to undermine the West and the US, as usual. I wonder what the US Senator finds inappropriate, I guess he has not spoken to the Cuban american orgs? but any way will see what shakes on this issue from the Senator, maybe he has some interesting story to tell?


by: Joe G from: Phx,Az
April 03, 2014 5:25 PM
America has used Twitters and facebook to start uprisings in many country and I hope the day will come when it will have its turn to face the music.

In Response

by: bob from: usa
April 04, 2014 7:26 AM
America has faced the music, Occupy Wall Street is just one song.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid