Bay of Tweets: White House Says Cuban Twitter Not Covert Program
Why would the United States be secretly involved in the creation of Cuba’s version of Twitter? Recent interviews and documentation show that this is what occurred back in 2010. The reasoning from a political and developmental standpoint is somewhat understood, but the legal and social implications are in a far more complex and difficult grey area. ZunZuneo, named after the sound a Cuban hummingbird makes in a subtle reference to Twitter, was created by the U.S. government through USAID and Creative Associates International — utilizing offshore accounts and front companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to hide its spending, as well as hiring CEOs without knowledge that they would be working on a project payed for with U.S. tax dollars — according to The Associated Press.
ZunZuneo was built to offer a social media outlet for communication via cell phones so as to circumvent the restrictive hold the Cuban government has on the internet. The American-created system had intended to keep its origins secret while collecting personal data from users for future use in politically motivated agendas. It would pull in a young group and then hoped to lead them toward political dissent, according to The Associated Press, affecting Cuban politics and the ability for the population to take part in dissident communications. These intentions, and the secrecy around the American-run project with government funding, are disputed at this point.
Rajiv Shah, administrator with USAID, told The Associated Press that, “This is simply not a covert effort in any regard,” but that “parts of it were done discreetly” so as to keep those involved safe. Others are defining the program not as an attempt to manipulate Cuban politics, but as a developmental effort and as democracy promotion. The legality of the program is still uncertain, but The Associated Press notes that those details discovered point to discordance with previous claims from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s insistence that it does make covert efforts.
“That is not what USAid should be doing,” said Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform National Security Subcommittee, to The Associated Press. “USAID is flying the American flag and should be recognized around the globe as an honest broker of doing good. If they start participating in covert, subversive activities, the credibility of the United States is diminished.”
According to The Washington Post, White House spokesperson Jay Carney said that the program was not covert and “was a development program run by the United States Agency for International Development, and that program was completed in 2012. As you know, USAid is a develpment agency, not an intelligence agency.” Carney went on to say that, “Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong. Congress funds democracy programing for Cuba to help empower Cubans to access more information and to strengthen civil society.” He noted that the program was “public unlike covert action,” and that, “The money invested has been debated in congress. In addition, GAO reviewed this program in detail in 2013 and found that it was conducted in accordance with U.S. law and under appropriate oversight controls.”
According to The Associated Press, Carney also noted that he does not have information on who within the White House had knowledge of the program, but did say that President Barack Obama supports efforts for communication expansion within Cuba. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chair of the Appropriations Committee’s State Department and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, told MSNBC that the program was “dumb, dumb, dumb,” and that while he had had no knowledge of it, if he had, “I would have said, ‘What in heaven’s name are you thinking?’ If you’re going to do a covert operation like this for regime change, assuming it ever makes any sense, it’s not something that should be done through USAID. They do a lot of great things around the world … this is not one of them.”
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