WASHINGTON — 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.
On the bustling streets of Havana, people continued to talk about the social media network ZunZuneo - Cuban slang for hummingbird. The Twitter-like text messaging service operated for two years and had tens of thousands of cell phone users.
"It was a very noble service. You would log on, and you could write 140 characters and hit send. It was free of charge," said former client Ernesto Guerra.
But his friend, Saimi Reyes, another user, said she often had doubts about the service.
"Sometimes I would wonder where this is from, where does the money come from? Because, all this for nothing wasn't possible," she said.
According to the Associated Press, the idea was to build up a large social network through targeted text messages, allowing Cubans to communicate with one another, and later to push messages which USAID hoped would encourage dissent.
AP says it obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents from contractors about the development of ZunZuneo. One memo read “there will be absolutely no mention of U.S. involvement.”
"It's true that every agency of the U.S. government, including unclassified programs, wants to protect certain details on who they're working with and all of that," said Fulton Armstrong, who was working for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time. "But this was far beyond. We were told we couldn't even be told in broad terms what was happening because, quote, 'People will die.'"
"Not a covert operation"
USAID ZunZuneo Project Manager Joe McSpedon refused to talk when asked if the project was a covert operation.
White House spokesman Jay Carney also rebuffed such allegations.
“USAID is a development agency not an intelligence agency. Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong," he said. "Congress funds democracy programming for Cuba to help empower Cubans to access more information and strengthen civil society. These appropriations are public unlike covert action.”
Carney also says that this was discussed in Congress and reviewed by the Government Accountability Office.
“GAO [Government Accountability Office] reviewed this program in detail in 2013 and found that it was conducted in accordance to U.S. law and under appropriate oversight controls," he said. "In implementing programs in non-permissive environments, of course the government has taken steps to be discreet; that’s how you protect practitioners and the public. This is not unique to Cuba.”
USAID says the ZunZuneo project was backed by a three-year grant totaling about $1.2 million. It says its purpose was to create a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves.
“Countries around the world are telling the U.S. that they worry about the NSA snooping. This potentially compromises legitimate USAID humanitarian actions because they’ll be afraid that you let USAID in the country and they’ll be doing covert actions," said Philip Brenner, a Cuba expert at American University.
The grant funding the program ended in September 2012.
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