Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

US created 'Cuban Twitter' to provoke unrest in the country

7 April 2014

An investigation carried out by the Associated Press reveals that the US created a social network similar to Twitter to weaken Cuba's communist government.

The social network was called ZunZuneo and was active from 2009 to 2012. In 2012, the available money for the project ran out and Cubans began to complain that the service was erratic, according to the BBC.

ZunZuneo was based on text messages and had 40,000 subscribers. Since Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raul, the use of mobile phones has been encouraged, so creating a text messaging social network would help elude the country's strict internet regulations, according to Reuters.

The documents gathered by the Associated Press expose that the project was led by US government official John McSpedon, who works for the US Agency for International Development, an agency better known for carrying out humanitarian aid projects than espionage projects. To hide the network from the Cuban government, Mr. McSpedon and his team used a system of front companies in the Cayman Islands and Spain to pay the company's bills, according to the BBC.

The executives who helped set this system up were not told of the company's ties to the US government. Its suscribers were never aware either of the US involvement in the project.

"There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement," said one of the project's contractors, according to a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord. "This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the mission." 

The plan was to initially gain users by focusing on light stories such as news on soccer, baseball bulletins, music and weather updates. Later on, once a large number of subscribers was reached, operators would introduce political information with the intention of undermining the Cuban government to create a 'Cuban Spring'.

The project's legality remains unclear. The Associated Press reports that USAID officials would not say who approved the project or whether the White House was aware of it, and US law requires that any covert action by a federal agency must have presidential authorization. Mr. McSpedon, the leader of the project, is a mid-level manager, and has refused to comment on the issue.

However, on Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the US government's involvement in the programme had been debated by Congress and passed oversight controls, according to the BBC.

"These are the kinds of environments where a programme like this and its association with the US government can create problems for practitioners and members of the public," he said. "So appropriate discretion is engaged in for that reason but not because its covert, not because it's an intelligence programme, because it is neither covert nor an intelligence programme."

USAID spokesman Matt Herrick told the BBC the agency was proud of its work in Cuba, which had helped people to excercise their freedom of expression rights and connect them with the outside world.

Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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