World / US and Canada

US secretly fed political satire to Cuba in social media

By Associated Press in Washington (China Daily) Updated: 2014-04-10 07:23

Humanitarian group claims tool was designed only for individual use

Draft messages produced for a Twitter-like service in Cuba that the US 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 US government's earlier assertions that its program didn't push political content.

Disclosure of the text messages came as the head of the US Agency for International Development told Congress in sometimes confrontational testimony on Tuesday that his agency's program was simply meant to increase the flow of information in Cuba.

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 US government, which went to great lengths to conceal its involvement.

At an oversight hearing on Tuesday, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont told USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah that the program was "cockamamie" and not adequately described to Congress. Shah also faces the House and Senate foreign relations committees this week.

Political messages

Some messages sent to 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 had once warned that the Internet was a "wild colt" that "should be tamed".

One message read: "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 if they were ultimately transmitted by the service, which the government said ceased in 2012 because of a lack of funding.

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

Satirist hired

Last Thursday, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf 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," she said.

However, Alen Lauzan Falcon, a Havana-born satirical artist based in Chile, said on Tuesday that he was hired to write the political texts, though he was never told about ZunZuneo's US 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.

Trudeau visits Sina Weibo
May gets little gasp as EU extends deadline for sufficient progress in Brexit talks
Ethiopian FM urges strengthened Ethiopia-China ties
Yemen's ex-president Saleh, relatives killed by Houthis
Most Popular
Hot Topics