WASHINGTON – The U.S. government masterminded the creation of a “Cuban Twitter” — a communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba, built with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks, The Associated Press has learned.
The project, which lasted more than two years and drew tens of thousands of subscribers, sought to evade Cuba’s stranglehold on the Internet with a primitive social media platform. First, the network would build a Cuban audience, mostly young people; then, the plan was to push them toward dissent.
Yet its users were aware neither that it was created by a U.S. agency with ties to the State Department, nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.
It is unclear whether the scheme was legal under U.S. law, which requires written authorization of covert action by the president and congressional notification. Officials at USAID would not say who had approved the program or whether the White House was aware of it. The Cuban government declined a request for comment.
At minimum, the details uncovered seem to muddy the U.S. Agency for International Development’s claims that it does not conduct covert actions, and could undermine its mission to deliver aid to the world’s poor and vulnerable — an effort requiring trust and cooperation from foreign governments.
USAID and its contractors went to extensive lengths to conceal Washington’s ties to the project, according to interviews and documents obtained by the AP. They set up front companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to hide the money trail, and recruited CEOs without telling them they would be working on a U.S. taxpayer-funded project.
“There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement,” according to a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord Inc., one of the project’s creators. “This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission.”
The project, dubbed “ZunZuneo,” slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet, was publicly launched shortly after the 2009 arrest in Cuba of American contractor Alan Gross. He was imprisoned after traveling repeatedly to the country on a separate, clandestine USAID mission to expand Internet access using sensitive technology. that only governments use.
USAID said in a statement that it is “proud of its work in Cuba to provide basic humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people,” whom it said “have lived under an authoritarian regime” for 50 years. The agency said its work was found to be “consistent with U.S. law.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s State Department and foreign operations subcommittee, said the ZunZuneo revelations were troubling.
“There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a U.S. government-funded activity,” he said.
Reporters obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents about the project’s development, independently verifying its scope and details through publicly available databases, government sources and interviews with those involved.
ZunZuneo would seem to be a throwback to the Cold War, and the decades-long struggle between the U.S. and Cuba. It came at a time when the historically sour relationship between the countries had improved, at least marginally, and Cuba had made tentative steps toward a more market-based economy.
The project began development in 2009 after Washington-based Creative Associates International obtained a half-million Cuban cellphone numbers. Project organizers used those numbers to start a subscriber base.
ZunZuneo’s organizers wanted the social network to grow slowly to avoid detection by the Cuban government. Documents reveal that they hoped the network would eventually reach critical mass so that dissidents could organize “smart mobs” — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice — that could trigger political demonstrations, or “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”
The Cuban government has a tight grip on information, and views the Internet as a “wild colt” that “should be tamed.” ZunZuneo’s leaders planned to push Cuba “out of a stalemate through tactical and temporary initiatives, and get the transition process going again toward democratic change.”
At a 2011 speech at George Washington University, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. helps people in “oppressive Internet environments get around filters.” Noting Tunisia’s role in the Arab Spring, she said people used technology to help “fuel a movement that led to revolutionary change.”
Suzanne Hall, then a State Department official working on Clinton’s social media efforts, helped spearhead an attempt to get Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to take over the ZunZuneo project. Dorsey declined to comment.
The estimated $1.6 million spent on ZunZuneo was publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan, government data shows, but the documents don’t reveal where the funds were spent.
ZunZuneo’s organizers worked hard to create a network that looked like a legitimate business, including the creation of a companion website so users could subscribe and send their own text messages to groups of their choice.
“Mock ad banners will give it the appearance of a commercial enterprise,” one proposal said. Behind the scenes, ZunZuneo’s computers were also storing and analyzing subscribers’ messages and other demographic information, including gender, age, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.” USAID believed the demographics on dissent could help it target other Cuba programs and “maximize our possibilities to extend our reach.”
“It was such a marvelous thing,” said Ernesto Guerra, a Cuban user who never suspected his beloved network had ties to Washington.
“How was I supposed to realize that?” Guerra asked in an interview in Havana. “It’s not like there was a sign saying, ‘Welcome to ZunZuneo, brought to you by USAID.’ “
“The moment when ZunZuneo disappeared, (it) was like a vacuum,” he added. “In the end, we never learned what happened. We never learned where it came from.”