US government agency built 'Cuban Twitter' in failed social media attempt to spark regime change

The United States was reportedly behind the project which saw the creation of a 'Cuban Twitter' dubbed  'ZunZuneo'

In an apparent throwback to the Cold War campaigns of disruption, disinformation and espionage, the US government spent $1.6m building a social media network with the aim of undermining the communist government in Cuba, it has emerged.

Documents obtained during an investigation by the Associated Press show that the project, which lasted more than two years and drew thousands of subscribers, was built with secret shell companies and was financed through foreign banks. 

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was reportedly behind the project which saw the creation of a 'Cuban Twitter' dubbed  "ZunZuneo" - slang for a Cuban hummingbird's tweet.

USAID were primarily responsible for the campaign and there was no involvement of intelligence services, but the details uncovered by the Associated Press would appear to bring into doubt USAID's longstanding claims that it does not conduct covert actions.

Users of "ZunZuneo" were entirely unaware of the involvement of the United States government agency and that American contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.

The project, which was started in 2009 after Washington-based Creative Associates International obtained a half-million Cuban cellphone numbers, has questionable legality under US law and has prompted concerns over clandestine government funded activity.

Documents and interviews show the US Agency went to extensive lengths to conceal its involvement.

They set up front companies overseas and routed money through a Cayman Islands bank to hide the money trail.

"On the face of it there are several aspects about this that are troubling," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and chairman of the Appropriations Committee's State Department and foreign operations subcommittee.

"There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a US government-funded activity. 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 service was established in 2009 when the Cuban government tightly controlled internet access and mobile phone communications were monitored.

Users were able to send updates to the site via SMS with said text messages being free of charge.

USAID contractors carefully designed the site to look like a real business using "mock ad banners" to "give it the appearance of a commercial enterprise”.

In multiple documents, USAID staff pointed out that text messaging had mobilized smart mobs and political uprisings in Moldova and the Philippines, among others.

In Iran, the USAID noted social media’s role following the disputed election of then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009 — and saw it as an important foreign policy tool.

At its height the service had at least 40,000 subscribers. USAID told the Associated Press that ZunZuneo stopped in September 2012 when a government grant ended.

The actions of USAID have parallels in the US government's project 'Lantern' – software that helps Chinese citizens get around the great firewall.

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