U.S. gov't penned political satire in secret Cuban Twitter

 Program evaded country’s digital restrictions

By Desmond Butler, Jack Gillum and Peter Orsi
Associated Press

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 U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah 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 the U.S. government, which went to great lengths to conceal its involvement.

Some lawmakers in Washington have expressed support for ZunZuneo since the AP’s original disclosure. At a House Foreign Affairs hearing with Shah Wednesday, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, called U.S.-led democracy efforts in Cuba “transparent” and “one of the most scrutinized programs in our foreign aid portfolio.”

But Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, and other lawmakers the day before questioned how thoroughly Congress was informed of the project. They said it had 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.

Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee responsible for foreign operations, told Shah that the program was “cockamamie” and had not been described adequately to Congress.

USAID, known worldwide for its humanitarian work, has maintained that it did not send out political messages under the project. Leahy asked Shah Tuesday 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.”

But some messages sent or intended for 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.”

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.”

Shah said Tuesday that Congress was 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 told the AP that investigators did not examine the question of whether the programs were covert.

The program’s effects could be far-reaching. Leahy said USAID employees have been contacting the oversight committee to complain that such secretive programs put them at risk because they drive perceptions that the agency is engaged in intelligence-like activities.

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