The U.S. government was behind the development of a text-messaging network in Cuba that was intended to spread unrest among the nation’s youth. A new Associated Press story indicates that the U.S. Agency for International Development modeled the network after Twitter and named it ZunZuneo, the Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet.
According to documents cited in the story, the network was intended to fly below the radar of Cuba’s strict Internet usage restrictions. The Miami Herald reported last year that “Cuba’s Internet remains one of the least free in the world.” In order to evade Cuban regulators, the USAID sought to build a subscriber base by promoting “non-controversial content” such as sports scores and hurricane updates. Once a sufficient number of subscribers was reached, operators of ZunZuneo would introduce political content.
The content would be aimed at creating mass gatherings, or “smart mobs,” charged with a message of political change. One USAID document said the goal was to encourage citizens to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”
USAID spokesman Matt Herrick told the AP that the agency was proud of the program.
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“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,” he said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said several aspects of the program were troubling.
“There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a U.S. government-funded activity,” he said. “There is the clandestine nature of the program that was not disclosed to the appropriations subcommittee with oversight responsibility. And there is the disturbing fact that it apparently activated shortly after Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was sent to Cuba to help provide citizens access to the Internet, was arrested.”
The nature of the program is sure to spark more controversy, but it is unclear what lawmakers will do with the information. Herrick noted the program was reviewed by investigators last year, and it was found to be consistent with U.S. law.
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ZunZuneo no longer operates in Cuba.
USAID said the program simply ended when it ran out of money in 2012. Internet service is still restricted in Cuba. Cuban users of the network told the AP it disappeared as mysteriously as it appeared. By late 2012, anyone who tried to access the network’s website was redirected to a children’s site.
“The moment when ZunZuneo disappeared was like a vacuum,” said one user. “In the end, we never learned what happened. We never learned where it came from.”