‘Cease illegal activity against Cuba’: Havana slams Washington for ‘Twitter’ program
Josefina Vidal, director of US affairs at Cuba's Foreign Ministry, said late Thursday that the ZunZuneo program "shows once again that the United States government has not renounced its plans of subversion against Cuba, which have as their aim the creation of situations of destabilization in our country to create changes in the public order and toward which it continues to devote multimillion-dollar budgets each year."
Vidal called on the United States to respect international law along with the principles of the UN charter, demanding that it “cease its illegal and clandestine actions against Cuba, which are rejected by the Cuban people and international public opinion.”
According to documents obtained by the Associated Press, the US government attempted to develop a no frills ‘Cuban Twitter’ using cellphone text messaging to circumvent Cuba’s strict control over the internet. Directly alluding to Twitter, the program is known as ZunZuneo — slang for a Cuban hummingbird's ‘tweet’.
The project was financed by the US Agency for international development (USAID), best known for overseeing billions of dollars in US humanitarian aid. USAID staff had noted that text messaging had been a popular fuse in starting political uprisings in Moldova and the Philippines.
At its peak, the site had more than 40,000 subscribers, who were never aware that the network had been created by the US government. The program was discontinued in 2012.
“There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement,” AP cites a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord, one of the project's contractors, as saying. “This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the mission.”
USAID's top official, Rajiv Shah, had been scheduled to testify on Tuesday before the Senate Appropriations State Department and foreign operations subcommittee on the agency's budget.
In an appearance on MSNBC on Thursday, the subcommittee's chairman, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont, called the project "dumb, dumb, dumb."
While US law requires written authorization of covert action by the president State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the program was neither "secret" nor "covert" under the US government's definitions of those terms. "Discreet does not equal covert," Harf told a news briefing on Thursday.
Harf said the so-called "democracy promotion" program created a platform "similar to Twitter" and was conducted under a three-year grant totaling $1.2 million, Reuters. The program was created with the aid of subcontractors and foreign banks under the tutelage of Joe McSpedon, a US government official.
"We did not supply political content. We did not drive the political content," Harf said, though she noted that initial communications made over the network on topics such as soccer, music and hurricane updates were made by US-funded contractors.
"So this is solely for the purpose of creating a platform for Cubans to express themselves, which has long been the policy of the United States, the United States Congress, and many other people in this country," Harf said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney echoed Harf’s statements, saying suggestions the program was covert “are wrong.”
“Congress funds democracy programming to Cuba to help empower Cubans to access more information and to strengthen civil society. These appropriations are public, unlike covert action. The money invested has been debated in Congress. In addition, [the Government Accountability Office] reviewed this program in detail in 2013, and found it was conducted in accordance with US law and under appropriate oversight controls.”
Carney added that while it was not a secret program, the government was “discreet” about its operations, as it was conducted in Cuba, a “non-permissive environment.”
“That’s how you protect the practitioners and the public,” he said. “This is not unique to Cuba.”
However, the service was also used as a means for the US government to check Cuban public opinion without their knowledge.
On September 20, 2009, thousands of Cubans gathered at Revolution Plaza in Havana for Miami-based Colombian rocker Juanes’s ‘Peace without Borders’ concert. In the weeks leading up to the concert, the ZunZuneo team sent out half a million text messages known as ‘blasts’. One question which garnered over 100,000 responses asked if two popular local music acts which were out of favor with the Cuban government should appear on stage alongside Juanes.