The US government said the secrecy was necessary to protect those involved with the programme in Cuba.
The United States Agency for International Development, USAID, funded and masterminded a clandestine operation that created a social media platform to stir popular revolt against Cuba’s communist regime, an investigation by news agency, Associated Press, has found.
In an effort to circumvent Cuba’s strict internet control, the USAID initiated a Twitter-like service called ZunZuneo, which used phone text messages instead of internet messaging. The service used a data base of telephone numbers.
The main objective of the programme was to galvanize mass discontent within the Cuban population, and stir unrest in the hope of wresting power from the Castros, AP reported, quoting several secret documents.
The report could undermine USAID’s longstanding claim that it does not take covert action in the countries where it operates aid programmes, the BBC said in an analysis.
Until now, the USAID was reputed for international development effort directed at the world’s poor.
In Nigeria, the agency is involved in democracy and governance, economic development, education and social services, health, environment. It spent $238.3 million in 2012 for those programmes in Nigeria.
The AP report highlighted how some the agency’s programmes in foreign countries may in effect serve as mere pretexts for covert US operations.
In Cuba, the strategic objective of the social media platform was “push it out of a stalemate through tactical and temporary initiatives, and get the transition process going again towards democratic change”, according to the AP.
Key to the planning and execution of the operation was for every possible link between the United States and the programme to be erased.
The report said the US concealed its links to the network through a series of shell companies and by funnelling messages through other countries including Spain and Mexico.
Funds were also routed through Spain and the Cayman Islands, a well-known offshore tax have, to pay the company’s bills.
According to the report, US officials started the platform with non-controversial themes such as sports, entertainment and weather, with plans to introduce political messages after the subscriber base grew, in the hope of spurring the network’s users, especially younger Cubans, into dissent from their communist-run government.
On Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney confirmed the US government’s involvement in the programme, saying it had been debated by Congress and passed.
“These are the kinds of environments where a programme like this and its association with the US government can create problems for practitioners and members of the public,” Mr Carney said.
“So appropriate discretion is engaged in for that reason but not because its covert, not because it’s an intelligence programme, because it is neither covert nor an intelligence programme.”
USAID spokesman, Matt Herrick, was quoted as saying that the agency was proud of the programme.
“USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency, and we work all over the world to help people exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms, and give them access to tools to improve their lives and connect with the outside world,” he said.
“In the implementation,” he added, “has the government taken steps to be discreet in non-permissive environments? Of course. That’s how you protect the practitioners and the public. In hostile environments, we often take steps to protect the partners we’re working with on the ground. This is not unique to Cuba.”
ZunZuneo had 40,000 subscribers at its height in a country with limited web access. The project began in 2009 ended in 2012 when the grant money ran out.
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