USAID confirms 'Cuban Twitter' but denies covert politics

Cuban flags fronting the U.S. Interests' office in Havana, Cuba. Photo by: Indi and Rani Soemardjan / CC BY-NC-ND

The U.S. Agency for International Development confirmed Thursday that it has worked to create a Cuban version of Twitter called Zunzuneo, but denied the project had anything to do with sending politically charged messages to the country.

The Associated Press first broke the story, which has generated a different kind of buzz than the agency was hoping for on the day of USAID's public launch of its long-awaited Global Development Lab.

AP suggests that USAID’s social media initiative in Cuba may be covert and illegal, and cited lawmakers voicing concerns.

"The purpose of the Zunzuneo project was to create a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves, period," USAID spokesperson Matt Herrick said in a statement.

"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," Herrick said.

Herrick referred to a report — "USAID's Program is Improved, but State Could Better Monitor its Implementing Partners" —  which says USAID and State Department "officials stated that they view the types of activities listed in section 109(a) of the Helms-Burton Act as illustrating, not limiting, the types of program assistance that the agencies can provide."

According to the report, "Section 109(a) authorizes assistance and other support that may be provided, such as published informational matter for independent democratic groups, humanitarian assistance for victims of political repression and their families, and support for democratic and human rights groups."

"At the initial stages, the grantee sent tech news, sports scores, weather, and trivia to build interest and engage Cubans," Herrick said. "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."

There has not been any word yet on whether lawmakers plan to schedule any congressional hearings to examine the legality of the program.

AP quotes Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s State Department and foreign operations subcommittee, as saying: “There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a U.S. 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.”

Gross, a USAID contractor working for DAI, was sentenced to 15 years in prison by Cuban authorities in 2009 for smuggling communications equipment meant for “democracy promotion” into the country — charges Gross has denied.

The Zunzuneo initiative involved USAID’s secretive Office of Transition Initiatives as well as Creative Associates International and several other firms, AP writes, citing official documents and emails not seen by Devex.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.

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