For more than two years, the United States secretly funded and developed ZunZuneo, a text-based social media platform, in order to encourage an uprising against the Cuban government, according to a report in the Associated Press. USAID spent at least $1.6 million—money that was publicly earmarked for programs in Pakistan—on the the clandestine project, which, at its peak, reached 40,000 Cubans and involved front companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands.
The USAID-sponsored program began in 2009 with the goal of providing information to Cuban citizens, who have limited access to the Internet and other non-government sanctioned information. First ZunZuneo would build a subscriber base with "non-controversial content"—its first texts were sent out to promote a large concert in Havana—before moving on to more subversive messages, in the hope of triggering an uprising similar to the Arab Spring movements.
But ZunZeneo's ties to USAID and the U.S. Government were kept secret.
"There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement," according to a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord, one of the project's contractors, obtained by the Associated Press. "This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission."
Beyond undermining the program's credibility with Cubans, ZunZeneo's origins may have violated U.S. law. From the Associated Press:
It is unclear whether the scheme was legal under U.S. law, which requires written authorization of covert action by the president and congressional notification. Officials at USAID would not say who had approved the program or whether the White House was aware of it. The Cuban government declined a request for comment.
At minimum, details uncovered by the AP appear to muddy the U.S. Agency for International Development's longstanding claims that it does not conduct covert actions, and 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.
To conceal the company's connections to the U.S., USAID and its contractors—Creative Associates International and Denver-based Mobile Accord Inc—set up shell companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands, and attempted to hire CEOs without informing them the project's origin, or secret purpose. (Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey was also approached to fund the project, though it's unclear if he agreed or had any involvement).
"If it is discovered that the platform is, or ever was, backed by the United States government, not only do we risk the channel being shut down by Cubacel, but we risk the credibility of the platform as a source of reliable information, education, and empowerment in the eyes of the Cuban people," Mobile Accord noted in a memo.
To cover their tracks, they decided to have a company based in the United Kingdom set up a corporation in Spain to run ZunZuneo. A separate company called MovilChat was created in the Cayman Islands, a well-known offshore tax haven, with an account at the island's Bank of N.T. Butterfield & Son Ltd. to pay the bills.
The program may have violated Spanish law as well, since it sent unsolicited text messages from a Spain-based company. The telephone numbers for the project were provided by an engineer for Cubacel, the government-owned cell phone company in Cuba, who was living in Spain.
When reached for comment by the Associated Press, USAID spokesman Matt Herrick defended the program's secrecy.
"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," Herrick said. "In the implementation has the government taken steps to be discreet in non-permissive environments? Of course. That's how you protect the practitioners and the public. In hostile environments, we often take steps to protect the partners we're working with on the ground. This is not unique to Cuba."
The program never reached its target of 200,000 users—it peaked at 40,000—and was shut down in June 2012, reportedly without having sent any anti-government or subversive texts.
[Image via AP]