The “Cuban Twitter” Cock-Up

An AP investigation found that USAID, working under the radar, tried to build a mobile-based social network similar to Twitter in Cuba called “ZunZuneo” in the hopes of using it to foment political unrest. The White House (above) claims it was just a regular development project and denies that it was “covert.” Larison dismisses the administration’s spin:

It strains credulity to say that the program was “discreet” rather than covert in nature. The agency reportedly went to great lengths to make it extremely difficult to track the funding for the operation back to the U.S. government, and it did this deliberately because it understood that association with the U.S. would interfere with the goal of stirring up unrest.

Jay Ulfelder points out how such “myopic” projects undermine the real development work USAID does:

Programs like this “Cuban Twitter” fiasco erode USAID’s credibility as an agent of development assistance everywhere. “If the U.S. government used USAID as a Trojan horse in Cuba,” politicians around the world might ask themselves, “why not in my country, too?” It’s hard for me to see whatever marginal effect this Cuban program might have had on the prospects for regime change in that country being worth the costs those doubts will impose on USAID’s work everywhere else.

Adam Taylor piles on:

Actions like this make Russia look smart for expelling USAID.

And Cuba has an especially complicated place in the USAID world – for example, in the past the money it’s funded to democracy organizations and Cuban American groups reportedly ended up being spent on Godiva chocolates and cashmere sweaters, plus the “Cuban Twitter” plan came remarkably soon after Cuba arrested American contractor Alan Gross for installing Internet networks. Gross was a USAID subcontractor, and he was later sentenced to 15 years in prison – his release is regarded as one of the key steps needed for increased dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba.

Ed Morrissey asks why “USAID went to all this risk and cost, only to never put the network to its intended use”:

It lasted more than two years, which gave USAID plenty of time to build a following in Cuba, and yet they apparently never once tried to boost dissent on the island. Another good question will be how this project was funded and managed. They spent more than $1.6 million in funds earmarked for a project in Pakistan, according to the AP, which might raise a few more eyebrows on Capitol Hill about how agencies are shuffling funds around to unauthorized projects.

Catherine Traywick looks back at USAID’s “long history of engaging in intelligence work and meddling in the domestic politics of aid recipients”:

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the agency often partnered with the CIA’s now-shuttered Office of Public Safety, a department beset by allegations that it trained foreign police in “terror and torture techniques” and encouraged official brutality, according to a 1976 Government Accountability Office report. USAID officials have always denied these accusations but in 1973, Congress directed USAID to phase out its public safety program — which worked with the CIA to train foreign police forces — in large part because the accusations were hurting America’s public image. “It matters little whether the charges can be substantiated,” said a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report. “They inevitably stigmatize the total United States foreign aid effort.” By the time the program was closed, USAID had helped train thousands of military personnel and police officers in Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and other countries now notorious for their treatment of political dissidents.