US penned political satire in secret Cuban Twitter

Comment: Off

US Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah, takes his seat on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 8, 2014, prior to testifying before the House subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs. Shah testified on USAID’s fiscal 2015 budget request but was questioned on the agency’s secret ‘Cuban Twitter’, a social media network built to stir unrest in the communist island. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

US Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah, takes his seat on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 8, 2014, prior to testifying before the House subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs. Shah testified on USAID’s fiscal 2015 budget request but was questioned on the agency’s secret ‘Cuban Twitter’, a social media network built to stir unrest in the communist island. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Senate subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT., right, talks with US Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 8, 2014, following the committee’s hearing of the USAID’s fiscal 2015 budget. Leahy demanded to know who came up with the idea to launch a secret “Cuba Twitter” social network system. Speaking at the subcommittee hearing, Leahy called the project “cockamamie.” (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Buy AP Photo Reprints

WASHINGTON (AP) — Draft messages produced for a Twitter-like service in Cuba that the U.S. government secretly funded were overtly political, documents obtained by The Associated Press show, even though the Obama administration has said the program had a more-neutral purpose.

The early messages poked fun at the Castro government and were created by a political satirist working for the social media project. Those messages conflict with the U.S. government’s earlier assertions that its program didn’t promulgate political content.

Disclosure of the text messages came as the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development told Congress in sometimes-confrontational testimony Tuesday that his agency’s program was simply meant to increase the flow of information in a country that heavily restricts Internet access.

An AP investigation last week found that the program, known as ZunZuneo, evaded Cuba’s digital restrictions by creating a text-messaging service that could be used to organize political demonstrations. It drew tens of thousands of subscribers who were unaware it was backed by Washington, which went to great lengths to conceal its involvement.

At an oversight hearing Tuesday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah that the program was “cockamamie” and had not been described adequately to Congress. Shah faces questioning before the House Foreign Affairs committee Wednesday.

Some messages sent to Cuban cellphones had sharp political commentary, according to documents obtained by the AP. One early message sent on Aug. 7, 2009, took aim at the former Cuban telecommunications minister, Ramiro Valdes, who once had 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!’”

Others were marked in documents as drafts, and it was not immediately clear whether they ultimately were transmitted by the service, which the government said ceased in 2012 because of a lack of funding.

One draft message read: “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.

“No,” wrote organizers, apparently rejecting that text. “Too political.”

USAID, known worldwide for its humanitarian work, has maintained repeatedly that it did not send out political messages under the project. Leahy asked Shah whether the project’s goal was to “influence political conditions abroad by gathering information about Cuban cellphone users” or “to encourage popular opposition to the Cuban government.”

“No, that is not correct,” Shah said. “The purpose of the program was to support access to information and to allow people to communicate with each other,” he said. “It was not for the purpose you just articulated.”

A USAID spokesman did not respond to requests seeking comment.

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf last week said that “no political content was ever supplied by anyone working on this project or running it. It was the people — the Cuban people on the ground who were doing so.”

“When it started, the folks who operated it put weather content on it, sports content on it to get it up and running, but no political content was ever supplied by anyone working on this project or running it,” Harf said.

However, Alen Lauzan Falcon, a Cuban-born satirical artist, said Tuesday that he was hired to write the political texts, though he was never told about ZunZuneo’s U.S. origins. “I don’t do cultural humor,” he said. “I do political humor. Everything I do is politics even if it is humor about politics.”

Some lawmakers in Washington have expressed support for ZunZuneo since the AP’s original disclosure. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Shah was to address Thursday, said USAID should be applauded for giving people in Cuba a less-controlled platform to talk to each other.

But Leahy and other lawmakers questioned how thoroughly Congress was informed of the project. They have said it has been described only in broad terms and they were given no indications of the program’s risks, its political nature or the extensive efforts to conceal Washington’s involvement.

Shah said Congress has been notified about this program every year since 2008 in documents outlining USAID’s budget. “The fact that we are discussing it in this forum, and that it is an unclassified program, illustrates that this is not a covert effort,” he said.

He said “parts of it were done discreetly” to protect the people involved. He cited a study by the Government Accountability Office into democracy-promotion programs — including the Cuban Twitter project — that found them to be consistent with the law. But the author of the GAO study

Comments

comments

About the Author