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.
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.