US government created 'Cuban Twitter' to undermine regime
American aid agency funded ZunZuneo messaging service to encourage dissent in Cuba
THE US government has confirmed that it was behind a Twitter-type text message service in Cuba allegedly intended to foment unrest and destabilise the government, but it has denied that the programme was covert.
The service, named ZunZuneo, lasted from 2009 to 2012 and at its peak had more than 40,000 users.
An Associated Press report says that the service was funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAid) using front companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to hide the money trail.
White House spokesman Jay Carney confirmed that the US government was behind ZunZuneo but denied that the programme was secret: "This was not an intelligence programme, this was an effort to promote the flow of free information... especially in societies that are non-permissive – because we believe that that is part of the essential right of every individual on earth."
ZunZuneo, a colloquial name for a hummingbird's tweet, initially tried to attract users by creating discussions around topics such as sport and weather. US officials then planned to introduce political messages criticising the communist government.
Users of the service were unaware that a US government agency was behind the service, nor that US contractors were gathering information about them. Washington-based agency Creative Associates International collected mobile phone numbers of half a million Cubans, through the service.
The US senator who governs USAid, Patrick Leahy, said he was not informed of the programme, and found the whole project troubling. "On the face of it there are several aspects about this that are troubling. There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a US government-funded activity (and) there is the clandestine nature of the programme that was not disclosed to the appropriations subcommittee with oversight responsibility."
USAid spokesman Matt Herrick told the BBC that the agency was "proud of its efforts in Cuba" emphasising that the organisation aimed to connect people who had little free access to information from the outside world.
One contractor told The Guardian that there was an "inherent contradiction" in giving Cubans access to "free" information that was not sponsored by their government, but was financed by the US.
The service wound down and closed in 2012.