The US government created a service similar to Twitter in Cuba in a "discreet" operation intended to promote democracy on the communist-ruled island, officials said, but denied that the $1.2m effort was aimed at fomenting unrest.

We did not supply political content. We did not drive the political content.

Marie Harf, State Department spokeswoman 

The programme, whose existence was first reported by the Associated Press news agency on Thursday, was run by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which normally delivers aid to the world's poor, and was discontinued in 2012, officials said.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the programme was neither "secret" nor "covert" under the US government's definitions of those terms. "Discreet does not equal covert," Harf told a news briefing.

Harf said this "democracy promotion" programme created a platform "similar to Twitter" and was carried out under a three-year grant totalling $1.2m and was created using subcontractors and foreign banks, Reuters news agency reported.

"We did not supply political content. We did not drive the political content," Harf said, although she added that the initial communications made over the network on subjects like sports and the weather were made by the US-funded contractors.

"So this is solely for the purpose of creating a platform for Cubans to express themselves, which has long been the policy of the United States, the United States Congress, and many other people in this country," Harf said.

Political agenda

The AP report said the programme was designed to get around Cuba's strict Internet prohibitions using secret shell companies financed through foreign banks. The report said USAID was careful to hide US ties to the project and used companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to conceal the money trail.

Anger over USAID role in 'Cuban Twitter'

The two-year project drew 40,000 users who did not know the communications network was devised by a US agency and also did not know their personal information was being gathered, the AP reported.

Harf said "the notion that we were somehow trying to foment unrest, that we were trying to advance a specific political agenda or points of view - nothing could be further from the truth."

The confrontation between the United States and Cuba is one of the world's last Cold War-era disputes and Washington has maintained an embargo on the communist country since 1962.

Source: Agencies