It is “important that the good work” of the US Agency for International Development “not be falsely characterized,” the agency wrote in a blog post responding to the Associated Press’ story on “Cuban Twitter.” The response outlined eight “inaccuracies” and eight “facts” to show key flaws in the story.
The only problem is the rebuttal did not really disprove any of the most damning aspects of the AP story. In fact, the problem the agency seems to have is not that AP got its facts wrong but that it did not characterize documents it had on “Cuban Twitter” in the ideological manner, which USAID would favor.
On April 3, the AP reported, based off “more than 1,000 pages of documents about the project’s development” and interview with individuals who were involved that USAID had planned to “a bare-bones ‘Cuban Twitter,’ using cellphone text messaging to evade Cuba’s strict control of information and its stranglehold restrictions over the Internet. In a play on Twitter, it was called ZunZuneo — slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet.”
A “subscriber base” would be built through “non-controversial content.” That is, “news messages on soccer, music and hurricane updates” would help build a “critical mass of subscribers.” When the network had “perhaps hundreds of thousands” of subscribers, “political content” could then be introduced to potentially inspire Cubans to organize “smart mobs” or “mass gatherings at a moment’s notice that might trigger a Cuban Spring. One USAID document said it might help “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”
USAID takes particular issue with the idea that the agency would have been interested in funding a project that would bring about the overthrow of the Cuban government. But “democracy promotion” initiatives by USAID are a distinct part of a US government agenda for regime change.
Two laws provide the backbone for these activities. The Cuban Democracy Act was passed in 1992 to “promote a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba through the application of sanctions directed at the Castro government and support for the Cuban people.” The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act was passed in 1996 to strengthen the embargo of Cuba in order to encourage “a peaceful transition to a representative democracy and market economy in Cuba.”
USAID found it inaccurate for AP to suggest the “program’s legality is unclear” and imply the program was “covert.” The agency suggested that another word, “discreet,” be used to describe the “Cuban Twitter” project because what the agency was doing was no secret.
“A key goal of USAID’s Cuba program is to break the ‘information blockade’ or promote ‘information sharing’ amongst Cubans and that assistance will include the use or promotion of new ‘technologies’ and/or ‘new media’ to achieve its goals,” USAID suggested. That “goal” was included in Congressional Budget Justifications from 2008 to 2013. But that does not prove that Congress was informed of the specific project or that anyone who found out about the project and requested details was provided with information to conduct oversight.
AP quoted Fulton Armstrong, who worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and stated, “We were told we couldn’t even be told in broad terms what was happening because ‘people will die.’” They became aware that the Office of Transition Initiatives in USAID was involved in secretly operating this project in Costa Rica and officials acknowledged it privately to Armstrong but USAID wouldn’t provide “operational details.”
The agency paid “tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to Cuba’s communist telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies,” which could arguably be a violation of US law. And, as AP indicated, “It was not a situation that it could either afford or justify — and if exposed it would be embarrassing, or worse.” (NOTE: USAID says nothing about this money in its blog post.)
USAID disputes the notion that a “shell company” in Spain was formed to run the “Cuban Twitter” project.
“No one affiliated with the ZunZuneo program established a private company in Spain as part of this program. The project sought to do so if it was able to attract private investors to support the effort after USAID funding ended. Private investment was never identified and thus no company was ever formed,” according to USAID.
In other words, USAID may have intended to set up a “shell company,” but it never happened because USAID failed to find an investor. The agency had wanted to start the company and then see it go “independent” so the US government was no longer involved in operations but that never happened.
What USAID does not dispute is the fact that “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.”
AP reported on a memo that read, “The ZZ [ZunZuneo] management team will have no knowledge of the true origin of the operation; as far as they know, the platform was established by Mobile Accord,” and, “There should be zero doubt in management’s mind and no insecurities or concerns about United States Government involvement.” This would be obeyed when seeking out executives to run the venture “independently” from the US government.
Somehow USAID maintains that executives being recruited were not intentionally kept in the dark. “A USAID staff member was present during several of the interviews for candidates to lead ZunZuneo. The staff member’s affiliation with USAID was disclosed and it was conveyed that the funding for the program was from the U.S. Government.”
How does that explain Francoise de Valera, who met with Mobile Accord president Nim Patel and told AP she talked about instant messaging but not Cuba or United States?
“The article states that private data was collected with the hope it would be used for political purposes,” USAID suggests. It says the “fact” is that “the ZunZuneo project included a website, as is typical for a social network. Users could voluntarily submit personal information. Few did, and the program did not use this information for anything.”
That does not settle anything. As Ellery Roberts Biddle highlighted in a post for Global Voices Online:
ZunZuneo was conceived, deployed and promoted by US government agents and subcontractors, all without the knowledge of the people that it was intended to help. Not only did the platform offer no transparency about its origins, it also obtained mobile phone numbers for half a million Cubans without their knowledge or consent. This would have constituted a sizable chunk of the mobile phone user population, which at the time was estimated at roughly 2.2 million people (out of a total population of 11 million.)
Even worse, ZunZuneo’s operators not only obtained these mobile phone numbers without the consent or knowledge of their owners—they also surveiled the content of subscriber messages. As AP writes, “Behind the scenes, ZunZuneo’s computers were…storing and analyzing subscribers’ messages and other demographic information, including gender, age, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.” USAID has since followed up with a blog post refuting several claims in the AP article, but conspicuously makes no mention of these allegations.
AP does not indicate whether these messages were private or public, and what guarantees of privacy users had, if any. But to some degree, this doesn’t matter. Under universal human rights doctrine, the ZunZuneo program almost certainly violated the privacy rights of subscribers. [emphasis added]
USAID contends that there was nothing inappropriate about setting up a base of operations for the project in Costa Rica. “The Government of Costa Rica was informed of the program on more than one occasion. The USAID employee overseeing the program served under Chief of Mission Authority with the US Embassy, as is standard practice.” But the base of operations was not in the US embassy. This arrangement was, according to AP, “unusual” to multiple officials in Washington.
Above all, what is most striking is how ignorant the response of USAID happens to be when considering the history of US intervention and meddling in Cuba.
James Peck, author of Ideal Illusions: How the US Government Co-Opted Human Rights, notes in his book that Cuba has been a “testing ground for hostile action in the Americas—embargoes, proxy warfare, assassination attempts—with each instance of reactive countermeasures singled out as one more example of Communist repression.”
It belies the experience of Armstrong, who shared in a Miami Herald column in 2011, “For three years, I was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s lead investigator into the political operations of the State Department and USAID in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America.
“The Cuba programs — designed to identify, organize, train and mobilize Cubans to demand political change — have an especially problematic heritage, including embezzlement, mismanagement, and systemic politicization. Some program successes costing millions of taxpayer dollars, such as the creation of a network of ‘independent libraries,’ were grossly
exaggerated or fabricated.”
He added, “The programs did not involve our Intelligence Community, but the secrecy surrounding them, the clandestine tradecraft (including the use of advanced encryption technologies) and the deliberate concealment of the US hand, had all the markings of an intelligence covert operation.”
Of course, the reason why USAID has lashed out at the AP for its journalism is because the AP has exposed an agenda in which, as Peck has said, USAID works to promote an “architecture of power that allows Washington greater latitude to pursue its own interests” through structural readjustment programs, privatization and cutbacks in public programs for health, food and education.
“Democracy promotion” projects like “Cuban Twitter,” which are amazing blunders on the part of the US government, are not developed because of an actual defensible desire to protect the human rights or freedom of Cubans or any citizens in any other country. The projects are authorized to advance the economic agenda of the US government and the interests of US corporations, which is why they are guaranteed to fail citizens of any country so miserably.