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US built ’Cuban Twitter’ to stir unrest

A book street vendor passes the time on her smart phone as she waits for customers in Havana, Cuba, on Tuesday. The Obama administration secretly financed a social network in Cuba to stir political unrest and undermine the country’s Communist government.

US built ’Cuban Twitter’ to stir unrest

WASHINGTON — The US government masterminded the creation of a “Cuban Twitter” — a communications network designed to undermine the Communist government in Cuba, built with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks.
The project, which drew tens of thousands of subscribers, sought to evade Cuba’s stranglehold on the Internet with a primitive social media platform.
First, the network would build a Cuban audience, mostly young people; then, the plan was to push them toward dissent.

Yet its users were neither aware it was created by a US agency with ties to the State Department, nor that US contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.

It is unclear whether the scheme was legal under US law, which requires written authorization of covert action by the president and congressional notification. Officials at USAID would not say who had approved the programme or whether the White House was aware of it. The Cuban government declined a request for comment.

‘Discreet’ project

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said yesterday that it was not a covert programme, though “parts of it were done discreetly” in order to protect the people involved. Shah said on MSNBC that a study by the US Government Accountability Office found the project to be consistent with the law.

“This is simply not a covert effort in any regard,” he said.

At minimum, details uncovered by AP appear to muddy the US Agency for International Development’s longstanding claims that it does not conduct covert actions, and the details could undermine the agency’s mission to deliver aid to the world’s poor and vulnerable — an effort that requires the trust and cooperation of foreign governments.

USAID and its contractors went to extensive lengths to conceal Washington’s ties to the project. They set up front companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to hide the money trail, and recruited CEOs without telling them they would be working on a US taxpayer-funded project.

“There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement,” according to a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord, one of the project’s creators. “This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission.”

The project, dubbed “ZunZuneo,” slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet, was publicly launched shortly after the 2009 arrest in Cuba of US contractor Alan Gross. He was imprisoned after travelling repeatedly to the country on a separate, clandestine USAID mission to expand Internet access using sensitive technology that only governments use.

USAID said in a statement that it is “proud of its work in Cuba to provide basic humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people,” whom it said “have lived under an authoritarian regime” for 50 years. The agency said its work was found to be “consistent with US law.”

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s State Department and foreign operations sub-committee, said the ZunZuneo revelations were troubling.

“There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a US government-funded activity,” he said. “There is the clandestine nature of the programme that was not disclosed to the appropriations su-committee with oversight responsibility. And there is the fact that it was apparently activated shortly after Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was sent to Cuba to help provide citizens access to the Internet, was arrested.”

Creating a legitimate-looking business

ZunZuneo would seem to be a throwback from Cold War, and the decades-long struggle between the United States and Cuba. It came at a time when the historically sour relationship between the countries had improved, at least marginally, and Cuba had made tentative steps toward a more market-based economy.

ZunZuneo’s organizers wanted the social network to grow slowly to avoid detection by the Cuban government. Eventually, documents and interviews reveal, they hoped the network would reach critical mass so that dissidents could organize “smart mobs” — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice — that could trigger political demonstrations, or “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”

The Cuban government has a tight grip on information, and the country’s leaders view the Internet as a “wild colt” that “should be tamed.” ZunZuneo’s leaders planned to push Cuba “out of a stalemate through tactical and temporary initiatives, and get the transition process going again toward democratic change.”

The estimated US$1.6 million spent on ZunZuneo was publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan, public government data show, but those documents don’t reveal where the funds were actually spent.

ZunZuneo’s organizers worked hard to create a network that looked like a legitimate business, including the creation of a companion website — and marketing campaign — so users could subscribe and send their own text messages to groups of their choice.

Behind the scenes, ZunZuneo’s computers were also storing and analyzing subscribers’ messages and other demographic information, including gender, age, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.” USAID believed the demographics on dissent could help it target its other Cuba programmes and “maximize our possibilities to extend our reach.”

Executives set up a corporation in Spain and an operating company in the Cayman Islands — a well-known British offshore tax haven — to pay the company’s bills so the “money trail will not trace back to America,” a strategy memo said. That would have been a catastrophic blow, they concluded, because it would undermine the service’s credibility with subscribers and get shut down by the Cuban government.

Similarly, subscribers’ messages were funnelled through two other countries — but never through US-based computer servers.

For more than two years, ZunZuneo grew and reached at least 40,000 subscribers. But documents reveal the team found evidence Cuban officials tried to trace the text messages and break into the ZunZuneo system. USAID told the AP that ZunZuneo stopped in September 2012 when a government grant ended.

The revelation of US efforts to stir unrest in Cuba come as the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro insists that Washington is behind widespread protests in the OPEC nation. Maduro has accused the US of funding the opposition in the hope that the protest movement will eventually topple the Socialist government.

Herald with AP

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