Last week, the Associated Press published a story exposing the U.S. government's super sketchy attempt to set up a Twitter-like social media site in Cuba, called ZunZuneo. The service was allegedly designed to stir up unrest and grassroots organizers, but was shut after just a few years with little results. ZunZuneo lasted from 2009-2012 and cost about $1.6 million.
Yesterday, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator (USAID) Rajiv Shah testified that the program was totally not secret and really just intended as a way to "allow people to communicate with each other." Because USAID is very concerned with Cuba's social media scene, apparently.
On Monday, USAID published a blog post titled "Eight Facts About ZunZuneo" which said the AP story "contained significant inaccuracies and false conclusions about ZunZuneo which was 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." The article explains that the operation was only secret to protect staff; that the documents presented by the article referring to "smart mobs" were nothing but "case study research and brainstorming notes;" and the funds for the project were not misappropriated, as the article suggested. It also added, perhaps as a point of pride, that ZunZuneo attracted 68,000 users before shutting down — AP story said the program had "more than 40,000" at its peak.
On Tuesday, Shah told Congress that the program was "absolutely not" covert, and that "the purpose of the program was to support access to information and to allow people to communicate with each other."
But the defense doesn't really address the scope of evidence collected by the Associated Press:
The AP obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents about the project's development. It independently verified the project's scope and details in the documents through publicly available databases, government sources and interviews with those involved in ZunZuneo.
Or the fact that this type of mission is not totally unprecedented:
ZunZuneo would seem to be a throwback from Cold War, and the decades-long struggle between the United States and Cuba. It came at a time when the historically sour relationship between the countries had improved, at least marginally, and Cuba had made tentative steps toward a more market-based economy.
And it certainly doesn't explain why many of the messages broadcast to users were politically charged statement. Al Jazeera reports:
One early message sent on August 7, 2009, took aim at the former Cuban telecommunications minister, Ramiro Valdes, who had once warned that the internet was a "wild colt" that "should be tamed". "Latest: Cuban dies of electrical shock from laptop. `I told you so,' declares a satisfied Ramiro. 'Those machines are weapons of the enemy!'"...
Said one draft message: "THE BACKWARDS WORLD: 54% of Americans think Michael Jackson is alive and 86% of Cubans think Fidel Castro is dead." Another called Castro the "The coma-andante," a reference to Fidel's age.
Castro the "coma-andante" could have gotten a bunch of reZunZuneo's, we bet.
Finally, USAID doesn't explain why the service would even be necessary when regular Twitter is not officially blocked in Cuba. While internet access is costly and difficult, the service is available to almost anyone with a cellphone.