And … ended up providing a free social-media network for no reason at all. According to the Associated Press, the normally-aboveboard USAID used Cayman shell corporations to hide a covert effort to use Cuban cellphones as a means to spread information that would allow the people to understand the nature of the Castro regime. ZunZuneo ended up being popular, but in the end USAID never sent out anything in support of its intended mission:
The U.S. 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 Associated Press has learned.
The project, which lasted more than two years and 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 U.S. agency with ties to the State Department, nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.
If true, this will present enormous complications for USAID, whose public mission is to provide aid for the needy around the world. Those efforts are intended to build support for Western democracy in an “actions speak louder than words” paradigm. Until now, the agency has denied any provenance over covert operations aimed at hostile governments, which means that their efforts in the future will come under a great deal more scrutiny.
Plus, it appears that USAID never informed its Congressional oversight panels of its activities, and one Senator wants to know why. Senator Pat Leahy also wondered aloud whether this has anything to do with a USAID official that has been imprisoned in Cuba for more than four years:
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s State Department and foreign operations subcommittee, said the ZunZuneo revelations were troubling.
“There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a U.S. government-funded activity,” he said. “There is the clandestine nature of the program that was not disclosed to the appropriations subcommittee 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.”
That’s one good question. Another would be why USAID went to all this risk and cost, only to never put the network to its intended use. It lasted more than two years, which gave USAID plenty of time to build a following in Cuba, and yet they apparently never once tried to boost dissent on the island. Another good question will be how this project was funded and managed. They spent more than $1.6 million in funds earmarked for a project in Pakistan, according to the AP, which might raise a few more eyebrows on Capitol Hill about how agencies are shuffling funds around to unauthorized projects.
Plus, it also has a whiff of the NSA scandal, too:
“Mock ad banners will give it the appearance of a commercial enterprise,” one written proposal obtained by the AP said. 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 programs and “maximize our possibilities to extend our reach.”
Of course, had this worked, it would have been hailed as a success story. Unfortunately, right now it looks like the worst of government programs: unauthorized, secret, incompetent, and snooping. Cubans who would normally be our friends will start wondering just how friendly we actually are, while other nations may wonder what else the US government may be cataloging through the latest fun smartphone app.