U.S. created Cuban social media network in attempt to stir unrest

BY Justin Scuiletti  April 3, 2014 at 5:20 PM EST

The United States created a “Cuban Twitter” in 2010, the Associated Press reported Thursday, in order to covertly spur Cubans to stand up against their government.

In a project funded and run by the United States Agency for International Development, the U.S. launched “ZunZuneo” — a name taken from slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet. The U.S.’ role in the service was hidden from the Cuban government through the use of several front companies which used a bank account out of the Cayman Islands. In order to bypass Cuba’s Internet restrictions, ZunZuneo based its network on cellphone text messages.

According to documents obtained by the AP, the service aimed to build a subscriber base through news content which included sports, music and weather. Once Zunzuneo had reached a large mass of users, network operators would then start releasing political content and items that would aim to push Cubans to stand up against their government and “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”

ZunZuneo ended up attracting more than 40,000 users at its peak in 2011. However, by June 2012, the service was gone.

USAID, who told the AP that the program officially ended in September 2012 after the end of a government grant, released a statement Thursday:

“It is longstanding U.S. policy to help Cubans increase their ability to communicate with each other and with the outside world. Working with resources provided by Congress for exactly this purpose, USAID is proud of its work in Cuba to provide basic humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and universal freedoms, and to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people. All of our work in Cuba, including this project, was reviewed in detail in 2013 by the Government Accountability Office and found to be consistent with U.S. law and appropriate under oversight controls.
It is also no secret that in hostile environments, governments take steps to protect the partners we are working with on the ground. The purpose of the Zunzuneo project was to create a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves, period. At the initial stages, the grantee sent tech news, sports scores, weather, and trivia to build interest and engage Cubans. After that, Cubans were able to talk among themselves, and we are proud of that. USAID is a development agency and we work all over the world to help people exercise their universal rights and freedoms.”