Global Politics

Did the US government design the ZunZuneo app to empower Cubans or stir unrest?

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A man speaks on his cell phone on a street in Havana.

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Reuters/Stringer

We know the role Twitter played in the Arab Uprisings. It helped get protesters out on specific days and times to Tahrir Square in Cairo, for example.

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Well, even before that, the US government was looking at how mobile phone messaging could be used as a tool that might "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society."

The Associated Press reports that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) secretly designed a social media app for Cuba that would do just that.

AP reporter Desmond Butler says a mobile phone messaging app called ZunZuneo was used by thousands of Cubans between 2010 and 2012.

Broadly speaking, Butler says "the idea was that you would build up a subscriber base by getting people interested in text messaging on really innocuous themes. They'd send out messages on sports scores, pop music, gossip. The idea was to build up a critical mass of subscribers and eventually start adding political content."

Butler said many documents talked about organizing smart mobs -- or when messages are sent out telling people to meet at a certain place on short notice -- which is a tool that has been used in a lot of countries to bring about political change.

Butler says USAID self-described mission is to promote democracy, but it took the secretly designed project pretty far. Was it illegal in any sense?  

"I am not a lawyer," he says. "I can tell you this. US national security law defines covert action as 'activity or activities of the United States government to influence political, economic or military conditions abroad where it is intended that the role of the United States government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.' Now what we know about this program is the role of the US government was not acknowledged publicly."

Butler says the US government set up front companies and they used off shore banking in the Cayman Islands. He added that the government felt it was important that their role of not become apparent.

Whether the ZunZuneo project was illegal or covert depends on who you ask. White House spokesman Jay Carney on Thursday called the program a "development assistance" scheme designed to allow Cubans facing government restrictions on information access to civil society.

"When you have a program like that in a non-permissive environment, a place like Cuba, you are discreet (in) how you implement it so you protect the practitioners," he said. "But that does not make it covert. USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency. Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong."

USAID is responding to the AP report too. USAID spokesman Matt Herrick said that USAID was proud to work in Cuba to "promote human rights and universal freedoms" and to help information flow to its people.

Herrick said the name "ZunZuneo" came from a term for a Cuban hummingbird and that it was a social platform for Cubans to "speak freely among themselves."

The problem, says AP reporter Desmond Butler, is that USAID was setting up a network that Cubans were using in a very sensitive environment.

"The Cuban government has very serious counter intelligence," he says. "It could have conceivably been very dangerous for users to use this platform not knowing that  they were using a US government platform in  a country that consider the US an enemy."

In other words Cubans could have been arrested or sent to jail for doing something that they didn't realize was illegal. Butler says one Cuban interviewed put it this way, "It's not like there was a sign on the door that said brought to you by USAID." 

After three years in operation, there were suspicions that Cuba was trying to shutdown the network. It also appears the US government project ran out of funding.

The ZunZuneo project has disappeared.