A book street vendor passes the time on her smartphone as she waits for customers in Havana, Cuba. The Obama administration secretly financed a social network in Cuba to stir political unrest and undermine the country's communist government, according to an Associated Press investigation. / Ramon Espinosa, AP
A Twitter-like text messaging system that the United States had made for Cuba democracy activists is being slammed by critics as a wasteful way to try and oust the island's repressive regime.
But the White House and supporters say the program was meant to give Cubans the chance to communicate and organize without eavesdropping from the Communist government.
"They're trying to say that somehow it's a bad idea to help people where Twitter and Facebook are illegal because the governments are so repressive. That's bad?" said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.
"I'm hoping we're doing that everywhere. I'm hoping we're doing that in North Korea, in Iran."
ZunZuneo, Cuban slang for a hummingbird's tweet, was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2009 to 2012, when lack of funds shut it down, according to the Associated Press. During its peak, it attracted tens of thousands of mobile followers.
USAID tried to keep the funding source of the service hidden from Cuban authorities. During its operation, the service cost $1.6 million and the project was labeled in budget documents as going to "an unspecified project in Pakistan." USAID, which provides humanitarian and other aid to other countries, set up offshore front companies to hide ties, according to the AP.
ZunZuneo's organizers said the Cuban government has a tight grip on information, and the Castro regime views the Internet as a "wild colt" that "should be tamed." ZunZuneo's leaders planned to push Cuba "out of a stalemate through tactical and temporary initiatives, and get the transition process going again toward democratic change."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was never briefed on the program and thought it was "dumb."
"If I had been, I would've said, 'What in Heaven's name are you thinking? This is dumb, dumb, dumb,' " Leahy said on MSNBC. "If you're going to do a covert operation like this for regime change, assuming it ever makes any sense, it's not something that should be done through USAID."
But USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said Thursday that it was not a covert program, nor was it an attempt at creating a coup. He said "parts of it were done discreetly" in order to protect the people involved. He said a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found the project to be consistent with the law.
"This is simply not a covert effort in any regard," he said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Thursday that although in "non-permissive environments" it was necessary for USAid to be "discreet", the secret social-media initiative was "not a covert program."
"It was a development-assistance program," he said, adding, the program was subject to congressional oversight.
"This program has been debated in Congress and reviewed by the GAO (Government Accountability Office), which found it was in accordance with US law," Carney said.
He said "discretion" was necessary "not because it is an intelligence program but to protect individuals."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a member and former chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the idea that the program was designed to carry out a regime change was only mentioned by one, unnamed person in the Associated Press story and does not reflect the reality of the program. Instead, she said the program had layers of secrecy built into it simply to protect Cuban people who would be using the program.
"It's not like a bag of rice going to Haiti where you want to brand it with an American flag," she said. "You have to be very careful about the information that's given out. That doesn't mean the program itself is covert. It just means the people who participate have their identities withheld unless you want to give them a death sentence."
Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Fla., said he supports the idea behind the program, and feels the Obama administration has done a good job of getting more federal assistance directly into the hands of Cubans. He just questioned whether USAID - a humanitarian organization - was the best group to carry it out.
"I've never believed that the CIA was particularly good at regime change," Garcia said. "I'm highly skeptical that USAID could be any better."
The Cuban government has long restricted its citizens' Internet access. During Fidel Castro's rule, it was primarily accessible to government workers, and even then, a limited number of work-related sites were available.
Citizens could buy cards that let them onto the Internet for short periods of time, but that was also limited by the government. They often circumvented the ban with satellite set-ups and by passing flash drives and CDs from person to person around the island.
Starting in 2008 when Castro was replaced by his brother, Raul Castro, Cubans were allowed to buy and own cell phones and computers for the first time. From 2008 to 2012, Internet penetration on the island doubled from 13% to 26%, according to the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union.
But that improvement still leaves Cuba ranked 107th in the world, and Cubans' cost for using broadband is dead last among the 169 countries surveyed by the union.
The U.S. continues to have an economic embargo in place on Cuba.
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Read the original story: Report: U.S. built secret 'Cuban Twitter' to spark dissent