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USAID program targeted, poked fun at Castro

‘Cuban Twitter’ texts were overtly political

AP

Draft messages produced for a Twitter-like network that the U.S. government secretly built in Cuba were overtly political and poked fun at the Castro brothers, documents obtained by The Associated Press show. The messages conflict with claims by the Obama administration that the program had no U.S.-generated political content and was never intended to stir unrest on the island.

Disclosure of the messages, as described in internal documents, came as the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development told Congress Tuesday in sometimes-confrontational testimony that his agency’s program was “absolutely not” covert and was simply meant to increase the flow of information.

An investigation last week found that the program, known as ZunZuneo, evaded Cuba’s Internet restrictions by creating a text-messaging service that could be used to organize political demonstrations. It drew tens of thousands of subscribers who were unaware it was backed by the U.S. government.

At an oversight hearing Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont told USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah that the program was “cockamamie” and not adequately described to Congress.

USAID, known worldwide for its humanitarian work, has repeatedly maintained it did not send out political messages under the project. Leahy asked Shah whether the project’s goal was to “influence political conditions abroad by gathering information about Cuban cellphone users” or “to encourage popular opposition to the Cuban government.”

“No, that is not correct,” Shah said. “The purpose of the program was to support access to information and to allow people to communicate with each other,” he said. “It was not for the purpose you just articulated.”

But some messages sent to Cuban cellphones were sharp political satire. One message sent on Aug. 7, 2009, took aim at the former Cuban telecommunications minister, Ramiro Valdes, who had once warned that the Internet was a “wild colt” that “should be tamed.”

“Latest: Cuban dies of electrical shock from laptop. ‘I told you so,’ declares a satisfied Ramiro. ‘Those machines are weapons of the enemy!’ ”

Others were marked in documents as drafts, and it was not immediately clear if they were ultimately transmitted by the service, which the government said ceased in 2012 due to a lack of funding.

Said one draft message: “THE BACKWARDS WORLD: 54% of Americans think Michael Jackson is alive and 86% of Cubans think Fidel Castro is dead.” Another called Castro the “The coma-andante,” a reference to Fidel’s age.

“No,” wrote organizers, apparently nixing that text. “Too political.”

Last Thursday, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said that “no political content was ever supplied by anyone working on this project or running it. It was the people — the Cuban people on the ground who were doing so.”

However, Alen Lauzan Falcon, a Havana-born satirical artist based in Chile, said Tuesday that he was hired to write the political texts, though he was never told about ZunZuneo’s U.S. origins. “Obviously it has to be covert, there is no way you can do something like this in Cuba without someone paying a price,” he said.

Some lawmakers in Washington have expressed support for ZunZuneo since the original disclosure. The latest came at a second hearing on Tuesday, this one before a House subcommittee. Two Florida lawmakers — Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart — said the Cuba project was successful.

Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Albio Sires, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, said USAID should be applauded for giving people in Cuba a less-controlled platform to talk to each other.

But Leahy and other lawmakers questioned how thoroughly Congress was informed of the project. They’ve said it’s been described only in broad terms and they were given no indications of the program’s risks, its political nature or the extensive efforts to conceal Washington’s involvement.

Shah said that Congress has been notified about this program every year since 2008 in documents outlining USAID’s budget. “The fact that we are discussing it in this forum, and that it is an unclassified program, illustrates that this is not a covert effort,” he said.

He said “parts of it were done discreetly” to protect the people involved. He cited a study by the Government Accountability Office into democracy promotion programs run by USAID and the State Department — including the Cuban Twitter project — that found the programs to be consistent with the law.

But the author of the GAO study, David Gootnick, said this week that investigators did not examine the question of whether the programs were covert.

Shah maintained his agency’s position Tuesday that the disclosure report had a number of critical inaccuracies.

Shah said USAID did not set up a Spanish company to help run ZunZuneo. But strategy documents and expense reports obtained by the AP show the project not only planned to establish the Spanish company but also listed an end-of-month expense of $12,500 for the incorporation costs. USAID has not disputed that contractors set up a shell company in the Cayman islands called MovilChat that was used to hide the program’s money trail.

The program’s effects could be far-reaching. Leahy said USAID employees have been contacting the oversight committee to complain that such secretive programs put them at risk because they drive perceptions that the agency is engaged in intelligence-like activities.