US development agency defends its Twitter-like service in Cuba

USAID secretly helped set up a mobile phone messaging program to spread democracy in the country

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on Thursday defended its work in setting up a Twitter-like service in Cuba to promote democracy in the communist country.

USAID, typically a humanitarian organization, secretly helped to develop the now defunct ZunZuneo, a mobile phone text messaging service in Cuba, according to a report from the Associated Press.

Part of the goal for the service was to allow Cubans to organize "smart mobs" to protest the Cuban government and "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society," according to a USAID document quoted by the AP story. The service operated for more than two years, from February 2010 to late 2012, reaching about 40,000 users, the AP story said.

USAID defended the project, with media director Matt Herrick saying the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office reviewed the agency's work in Cuba in 2013 and found it to be "consistent with U.S. law and appropriate under oversight controls."

"It is longstanding U.S. policy to help Cubans increase their ability to communicate with each other and with the outside world," he said by email. "Working with resources provided by Congress for exactly this purpose, USAID is proud of its work in Cuba to provide basic humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and universal freedoms, and to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people."

He defended USAID's decision to hide the origins of the project. "It is ... no secret that in hostile environments, governments take steps to protect the partners we are working with on the ground," he said.

The purpose of ZunZuneo was to help Cubans talk to each other, he added. The goal of the project "was to create a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves, period," he said." At the initial stages, the grantee sent tech news, sports scores, weather, and trivia to build interest and engage Cubans. After that, Cubans were able to talk among themselves, and we are proud of that."

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, raised concerns about the project in the AP story. A spokesman for Leahy referred back to the senator's comments, saying he had concerns that it could put its young Cuban users in danger because they had no idea it was funded by USAID. He also raised questions about whether the program was disclosed to lawmakers on an appropriations subcommittee.

A publicly available February 2013 report from the GAO noted that USAID was engaged in democracy-building activities in Cuba, including efforts to document human rights abuses and distribution of books and pamphlets promoting democracy. The GAO report didn't mention ZunZuneo.

USAID also provided IT training, including Internet and blogging training to Cubans, and helped distribute a digital newspaper to disseminate the work of independent Cuban journalists, the GAO report said. The agency also helped create a short-wave independent radio station in Cuba, and provided basic humanitarian assistance, the report said.

While the GAO report didn't name specific USAID programs in Cuba, "GAO staff, as part of their inquiry, had extended telephone conversations" with contractor Mobile Accord and examined all of Mobile Accord's financial information related to the program, Herrick said.

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Tags governmentmobileinternetsocial networkingInternet-based applications and servicesPatrick LeahyGovernment use of ITU.S. Department of StateU.S. Agency for International DevelopmentU.S. Governmental Accountability OfficeMobile AccordMatt Herrick

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