US-Backed Secret “Cuban Twitter” Comes Under Criticism

The Associated Press has reported that the United States government created a secret Twitter-type communication program for Cuban citizens to fuel sentiments of political dissent and sidestep the Cuban government’s stronghold over social media. The program, created by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), was specifically designed to be hidden from the Cuban government by using shell corporations and funding through Cayman Islands bank accounts to cover its tracks.

The network was called ZunZuneo, Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s sound, and was introduced to Cuban users in 2010. According to documents and interviews, the US government built a base of subscribers within ZunZuneo by offering uncontroversial news topics such as weather, music and sports. As the base of users grew, the government began pumping ZunZuneo with political posts geared toward promoting dissent, such as calling for “smart mobs”- impromptu protests to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society”. The social network had about 40,000 users at its peak.

Unbeknownst to its users, the US government was collecting their personal data from ZunZuneo for “political purposes”. Users of ZunZuneo were also completely unaware that the entire program was being funded and operated by the US government.

The project ended in 2012 when funding was dissolved, but now controversy is buzzing as congressional hearings on the subject begin next week. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he was never briefed on the operation. “If I had been, I would’ve said, ‘What in Heaven’s name are you thinking? This is dumb, dumb, dumb’…If you’re going to do a covert operation like this for a regime change, assuming it ever makes any sense, it’s not something that should be done through USAID.” 

The Obama Administration defends the operation as a method of humanitarian aid to Cuban citizens. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “The whole purpose of our democracy programs, whether it be in Cuba or other parts of the world, is in part to create a free flow of information in closed societies.”

Not surprisingly, the Cuban government disapproves of the ZunZuneo operation. In a statement by Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. affairs at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, she said,“The government of the United States must respect international law and the goals and principles of the United Nations charter and, therefore, cease its illegal and clandestine actions against Cuba, which are rejected by the Cuban people and international public opinion.”

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