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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
"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.
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.
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."
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.