U.S. Agency Makes Twitter-Like Service to Empower Cubans
April 3, 2014 5:20 PM
USAID was hoping it would spark demonstrations
A U.S. agency reportedly created a Twitter-like service for residents in Cuba in an effort to empower them, but it's not clear if this initiative was ever approved by the Obama administration.
According to the
, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) created the ZunZuneo program, which aimed to create a large social network through targeted text messaging. This allowed Cubans to communicate with one another for free -- and beyond the country's tightly-regulated Internet.
At the same time, the Twitter-like service allowed U.S. officials to send Cubans information from the outside world. At first, only texts about sports and music would be sent. But as the network grew larger, USAID sent more political texts in hopes of users rebeling against the regime of Raúl Castro.
USAID also used targeted text message polls to gather intelligence on its ZunZuneo users.
The desired result was for the Cuban people to push back and "renegotiate the balance of power between state and society."
The U.S. kept its involvement a secret, using a network of "shell" companies under a Cayman Islands bank account and even utilizing fake banner ads to make it seem like a legitimate business.
However, in 2012, USAID started removing itself from the ZunZuneo program as text messaging fees started becoming too steep and USAID worried about being exposed by the Cuban government.
USAID even reportedly asked Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey for funding, and he did meet with a State Department official.
But one of the biggest questions is whether or not USAID received presidential authorization to launch this program. USAID has declined to say whether or not the Obama administration had any idea about ZunZuneo.
"USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency, and we work all over the world to help people exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms, and give them access to tools to improve their lives and connect with the outside world," said USAID spokesman Matt Herrick. "In the implementation, has the government taken steps to be discreet in non-permissive environments? Of course. That's how you protect the practitioners and the public. In hostile environments, we often take steps to protect the partners we're working with on the ground. This is not unique to Cuba."
USAID did manage to build quite a network though, reaching 40,000 users at its peak.
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