The US plans for a clandestine Twitter-like social media outlet in Cuba used to gather information and spread messages of dissent to 200,000 Cubans flopped and Congress shakes its head. “Cockamamie.” That’s what Sen. Patrick Leahy called the U.S. Agency for International Development’s plan for the Cuban Twitter program, as he interrogated USAID administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah on Tuesday in a Senate subcommittee dealing with the department’s 2015 fiscal budget.
USAID’s traditional role is to provide humanitarian, economic and development assistance around the world. They are generally not known for these black bag type operations.
“If you’re going to do a covert operation like this for a regime change… it’s not something that should be done through USAID,” said Leahy
ZunZuneo — which is a Cuban term for the tweet of a hummingbird – was the name of the clandestine social media apparatus USAID began in 2010 in order to deliver information to Cubans and allow them to interact with each other under the state’s radar, according to an Associated Press report released last week.
The program, according to AP, used multiple shell companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to send text messages to thousands of Cuban residents without the state-run cellular provider, Cubacel, discerning where the texts originated.
USAID’s goal was to use ZunZuneo in Cuba to “push it out of a stalemate through tactical and temporary initiatives, and get the transition process going again toward democratic change,” according to USAID documents uncovered by the AP.
The program would catalog users gender, age, receptiveness, and political tendencies and use the demographics to maximize their reach and ability to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”
USAID officials maintain that the ZunZuneo program was not a covert operation… It was discreet, but not covert. If it were a covert operation it would have to have presidential approval and Congress must be notified, and it would probably be carried out by the CIA not USAID, as Sen. Leahy noted.
At the Senate subcommittee for the new USAID budget questions were raised about where the money was spent on the Cuban Twitter project, much of it being directed to offshore shell companies and to the Cuban government through the state-owned, Cubacell, in order to provide text messages to ZunZuneo’s 48,000 followers at about four cents a pop over two years.
This creates an issue as Cuba is currently under a trade embargo with the United States. So while the country is supposed to be cut off from all goods and services coming out of the states, the US government is essentially putting thousands of dollars back into the communist regime.
Another issue brought up by Senator Leahy was the incarceration of US contractor Allan Gross, who was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years on charges of distributing internet and communication supplies in Cuba through a program funded by USAID. Cuba’s government keeps its citizens’ internet access very regulated. One Cuban official even called it a “wild colt that must be tamed.”
Sen. Leahy asked Shaw if he considered what might happen to Gross if the USAID’s ZunZuneo operation was uncovered by the Cuban government. The clandestine Cuban Twitter flop, ZunZuneo, disappeared just as quickly as it came when the US funded program ran out of money in 2012, and many Cubans were left wondering as to what happened to their mysterious social media outlet.
By Cody Long