By JEFF MACKLER
A startling but perhaps, in these repressive times, routine April 3 Associated Press (AP) story entitled, “U.S. secretly created ‘Cuban Twitter’ to stir unrest” was based on 1000 pages of USAID (United States Agency for International Development) documents obtained by AP. To date AP has not revealed how it obtained these documents. Neither has the U.S. government moved to compel AP to do so. Indeed, if AP follows the “norm” established in these matters, there is little doubt that its article was subject to prior government “approval” for “national security” reasons.
As with the voluminous Edward Snowden revelations, the validity of the material has not been challenged by any government official. Indeed, after a few days of evasions regarding the legality of its operations, including USAID official statements that its highly secret program was “approved” by unnamed officials, President Obama ended the speculation in a press conference where he verified and justified the illegal operation.
In today’s increasingly Orwellian political environment, what was “illegal” yesterday, including mass surveillance on virtually all e-mail and cell-phone communications of all Americans, is made government policy the next—by presidential decree or via “approval” by judges operating secret courts immune from public scrutiny.
Few secrets in U.S. society today can be kept hidden from government spies. This is evidenced by the revelations in early January 2014 by U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee and was the National Security Agency’s most avid defender until she discovered that the confidential 10,000-page report her committee was preparing on NSA surveillance operations had been surreptitiously entered and altered by the NSA itself!
The AP documents detail a massive program aimed at triggering mass protests—a “Cuban Spring” that would supposedly provide the basis for “civil society” challenging the policies of the Cuban government.
The AP independently “verified the project’s scope and details in the documents—such as federal contract numbers and names of job candidates—through publicly available databases, government sources, and interviews with those directly involved…”
“In a play on Twitter,” AP reports, the secret operation that began in 2009 and purportedly ended some two and a half years later “was called ZunZuneo—slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet.”
USAID has been financed to the tune of billions by the U.S. government for decades. Its stated purpose of providing “humanitarian” aid to “democratic” forces around the world is belied by its record of funding right-wing trade unions and other organizations aimed at installing and defending a broad range of military dictatorships and/or bringing down governments whose policies were deemed contrary to U.S. interests. U.S.-instigated “flash mob” mobilizations are but another weapon in imperialist hands today along with mass surveillance, drone warfare, systematic torture, and overt intervention and war.
AP reports that the ZunZuneo operation was overseen by Joe McSpedon, “who worked for USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), a division that was created after the fall of the Soviet Union to promote U.S. interests in quickly changing political environments—without the usual red tape.” AP’s documents, like Snowden’s, repeatedly reveal USAID’s efforts to maintain absolute secrecy due to their central concern that the messages to be tweeted could be linked to the U.S. To this end they sought the assistance of a broad range of experts in the field of organizing social networks, including a co-founder of Twitter and officials in the Spanish government.
“Their mission,” AP states, “was to launch a messaging network that could reach hundreds of thousands of Cubans. To hide the network from the Cuban government, they would set up a byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account, and recruit unsuspecting executives who would not be told of the company’s ties to the U.S. government.” USAID reports that funds for the program were claimed to be expended for unspecified projects in Pakistan.
Camouflaging ZunZuneo included intricate operations and agents based in several Central America nations, Spain, and England, as well as across the U.S. and elsewhere. An unnamed Cuban engineer at Cubacel, Cuba’s cell-phone agency, is said to have provided a Cuban associate in Spain with 500,000 Cuban cell-phone numbers. AP does not indicate whether this “engineer” or his Cuban accomplice based in Spain were U.S. agents, or for that matter, whether the cell-phone numbers were actually obtained in the same manner that U.S. NSA secret surveillance operations steal information from computer systems everywhere.
The ZunZuneo social network began with providing non-political information—including jokes, reports on sports events, hurricane warnings and entertainment. The aim was to organize what appeared as an innocuous and extremely low-cost social network, aimed mostly at Cuban youth, that eventually signed up some 40,000 Cubans. Initially, USAID, through its front groups, secretly financed the extremely low cost of Cubans’ joining the network. The costs to Cubans were paid directly for each tweet to Cubacel.
AP documents how similar text messaging had been used to “mobilize smart mobs and political uprisings in Moldova and the Philippines,” among other unspecified places. “In Iran,” AP reports, “the USAID noted social media’s role following the disputed election of then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009—and saw it as an important foreign policy tool.”
AP’s documents reveal that “USAID divided Cuban society into five segments depending on loyalty to the government. On one side sat the ‘democratic movement,’ called ‘still (largely) irrelevant,’ and at the other end were the ‘hard-core system supporters,’ dubbed ‘Talibanes’ in a derogatory comparison to Afghan and Pakistani extremists.” It is not possible to discern whether the parenthetical “largely” above was inserted by AP or was in the original USAID texts, or perhaps inserted by an embarrassed U.S. government “censor” who worried that the AP exposé from its own sources gave proof to the fact that that the so-called democratic opposition, minus a few U.S. operatives, did not exist.
While AP reports that USAID, out of concern for being discovered and discredited by the Cuban government, attempted to sever any connection to ZunZuneo, it is not clear how this could be accomplished, on the one hand, and simultaneously be utilized for its stated purpose, on the other. Perhaps establishing it formally as a private, for profit operation, as opposed to a U.S. government operation, was sufficient in the minds of USAID officials to grant the U.S. “plausible denial.”
In the end, the program was dropped, according to AP, with no clear reason other than that the “privatized” ZunZuneo was now operating at a financial loss. However, given the untold billions expended on U.S. spy, surveillance, and related operations, it appears doubtful that the “Cuban Twitter” project was put to pasture due to lack of funds!
Within days of the AP release, ZunZuneo was widely discussed in the Cuban media, including full coverage during Cuba’s nightly two-hour Round Table television program. As with other U.S. destabilization programs, Cuban officials, always in measured tones, denounced the U.S. operation as “cyberwar,” along with similar aggression against Cuba’s sovereignty.