The head of the US Agency for International Development has denied that a Twitter-like network it built in Cuba was designed to undermine the government – a statement contradicted by the release of draft messages poking fun at Cuban leaders.
USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah gave evidence to Congress on Tuesday, stating that the programme, known as ZunZuneo, was “absolutely not” covert and was simply meant to increase the flow of information.
However, the Associated Press news agency published microblogs intended for the programme that seemingly poked fun at Cuba’s leaders.
An AP investigation last week found that the programme evaded Cuba’s internet restrictions by creating a text-messaging service that could be used to organise political demonstrations. It drew tens of thousands of subscribers who were unaware it was backed by the US.
At an oversight hearing Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont told Shah that the programme was “cockamamie” and not adequately described to Congress.
USAID, known worldwide for its humanitarian work, has repeatedly maintained 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 programme 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.”
But some messages sent to Cuban cellphones were sharp political satire. 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!'”
Others were marked in documents as drafts, and it was not immediately clear if they were ever transmitted by the service, which the government said ceased operations in 2012 because of a lack of funding.
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.
“No,” wrote organisers, apparently nixing that text. “Too political.”
Last Thursday, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf 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”.