USAID has denied Associated Press allegations that it created a Cuban alternative to Twitter in order to foment political unrest. Last week, the AP wrote that the foreign aid agency had secretly created a microblogging service called ZunZuneo, intending to recruit users with innocuous topics and then nudge them towards dissent. But USAID has disputed several of the AP's claims, saying that the program was neither covert nor intended as anything but a platform for free speech. "The article contained significant inaccuracies and false conclusions about ZunZuneo," writes spokesperson Matt Herrick, calling it "part of a broader effort that began in 2009 to facilitate 'Twitter-like' communication among Cubans so they could connect with each other on topics of their choice."
"All funds for this project were Congressionally appropriated."
Officials have already denied that the program was "covert," saying that it had been reviewed by the Government Accountability Office and that they had offered to bring it up for debate in Congress. Like those officials, Herrick calls the program "discreet" instead. According to him, it was kept quiet in order to protect its staff and partners, but it was explicitly legalized with a budget line asking USAID to break the "information blockade" in Cuba with methods that included new media. "All funds for this project were Congressionally appropriated for democracy programs in Cuba, and that information is publicly available," he writes.
Herrick also takes issue with more specific aspects of the program. Among other things, the AP said that interviews and documents revealed that front companies were established to hide ZunZuneo's government ties, and that CEOs were recruited without being told about these connections. Herrick denies the existence of at least one of these shell companies, saying that it attempted to form such a group but was unable to get private investment for it. As for the latter claim, "a USAID staff member was present during several of the interviews for candidates to lead ZunZuneo," he writes. "The staff member's affiliation with USAID was disclosed and it was conveyed that the funding for the program was from the US Government."
One of the most interesting allegations was the AP's claim that USAID hoped to facilitate "smart mobs" of dissidents that could quickly organize demonstrations or other anti-government actions. But the documents it points to, Herrick writes, were only "case study research and brainstorming notes," not any official policy or goal. The reference to smart mobs, particularly, "had nothing to do with Cuba nor ZunZuneo." It even corrects usage statistics, citing a peak of 68,000 subscribers rather than the "more than 40,000" described by the AP. At first, Herrick says, ZunZuneo's creators disseminated things like sports scores, news, and trivia; later, content came only from its Cuban users. The AP previously reported that the program was shut down in 2012 after a grant expired. After USAID posted its response, Reuters reported that ZunZuneo was only one of the US government's Cuban programs, which included a mass text messaging campaign that has been characterized as "spamming."
Some of the USAID response is based on technicalities or reframing the debate, drawing distinctions between "discreet" and "covert" that might not mean much in practice. The fact that the program was founded with the goal of getting past Cuba's harsh internet restrictions doesn't rule out other, more sensitive uses. And lawmakers have said that they heard about the program only in passing. USAID's refutation does, however, raise the possibility that the AP's reporting was based on draft documents or missing context. In the meantime, USAID head Rajiv Shah is scheduled to testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.
Update April 7th, 5:30pm: Updated to add information from a Reuters article about other US government projects in Cuba.