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An Associated Press investigation revealed that the U.S. Agency for International Development secretly created a social media platform in Cuba with the intention of fueling political unrest. During the more than two-year program, USAID employed a network of tech-savvy entrepreneurs, front companies and foreign bank accounts to launch the Cuban Twitter-like service without the knowledge of Raul Castro’s government. Kojo talks first with an AP reporter involved in the investigation and then hears from an associate of the Washington Office on Latin America to understand how the revelations affect U.S.-Cuban relations going forward.
- Jack Gillum Reporter, Associated Press Washington Investigative Team
- Marc Hanson Senior Associate for Cuba, Washington Office on Latin America
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt sounds a lot like Cold War era fiction. A group working for the U.S. government launches a social media service in Cuba that circumvents the Castro regime's iron grip on online communications. They draw Cubans into the service with free texting and friendly updates about sports and music. And once the service grows in popularity they slowly introduce political messages, Eventually leading to calls from mass protests.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe carefully designed plan has one goal, toppling the Cuban government through popular revolt. According to a recent Associated Press investigation, this was a real U.S. program. But the people behind it weren't spies or CIA agents. They were contractors for the U.S. Agency for International Development USAID. Joining me to talk about this is Jack Gillum. He is a part of the Associated Press's Washington investigative team that broke the story. He joins me from studios at the AP. Jack Gillum, thank you for joining me.
MR. JACK GILLUMYou're welcome. It's good to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIJack, your investigation reveals that USAID orchestrated a secret program to stir political unrest in Cuba. We might expect that kind of operation to come out of the CIA. So how did USAID get involved in a project like this?
GILLUMSo the idea was to -- is very simple, right. I mean, all of us take for granted here in the United States that we have a SmartPhone, that we have access to the internet where we can use social media, Twitter, Facebook to really connect with people. But in Cuba the Cuban government has a very tight control on information and access to the internet as such. And so this idea through USAID's sort of democracy promotioned efforts was to make a Twitter-like service using SMS, that's the fancy way of saying text messages, so that people could connect with one another.
GILLUMAnd they started doing that in about early 2010 after some tests with the idea that there would -- it would sort of -- you could either create smart mobs, that you could -- that people could organize together, be more free thinking. And that was the ultimate goal of the project before it got shut down.
NNAMDIBut how were they able, the USAID, to get thousands of Cubans signed on to a social media service?
GILLUMSo through the course of our reporting we found out that there was a -- somebody inside the Cuban cell phone provider called Cuba Cell, they were able to obtain about half a million phone numbers. That person then turned it over to somebody who then gave it to a USAID contractor. And they decided to seed the list, such as it is, to create this platform and out a broadcast message saying, hey look, here's this new program. And they ended up getting as many as 40,000 people a month in response.
NNAMDIYou know, the Arab Spring didn't start until the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2012. Planning for this program began in 2009. How did these USAID officials and contractors think, without any evidence, that they could spur a political revolt through social media?
GILLUMSo it's no secret that in the Hillary Clinton State Department that, you know, there was an effort to use social media in diplomacy. Secretary Clinton had made comments about this when she had given public appearances. You mentioned the Arab Spring. She later said that this -- that social media played a very important role in this whole process.
GILLUMAnd so this was an early idea and, you know, this happened about a year into the Obama Administration to try to use a high-tech way of maybe instilling democratic values. The government says, you know, this is essentially a program for people to talk to each other but this was a barrier. I mean, technology can be difficult. Access to the internet is difficult in Cuba. And this is one easy way by setting up these, you know, companies overseas to give it the look and feel of a legitimate program or a grassroots program, even though it was backed by Washington.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, we're talking with Jack Gillum. He is part of the Associated Press's Washington investigative team that broke the story. You can call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think of USAID's involvement in a secret program to stir political unrest in Cuba, 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a Tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDIJack, while this Cuban social media effort went on for more than two years, you report that neither the users nor many of the contractors running this program known as ZunZuneo knew that the U.S. government was behind it. How did U.S. officials manage to hide the U.S.'s involvement in it all?
GILLUMWhen we spoke to the government they had said that there's a reason why this needed to be as what they say discreet. And there's two different reasons for that that make sense in the context of this program. First off is that if you wanted to build legitimacy among people to use the social network, it would create this sort of -- this problem if it looked like it was indeed a U.S. backed program.
GILLUMThe other thing is, is because of this restrictive access to information on the island, they wanted to make it look like it was not backed by Washington by putting servers overseas. So if you tried to, you know, peel back the layers of the onion and see just where these computers were set up, they were not in the United States, that they were Spanish executives they recruited, that they were funded through a company and through a bank account in the Cayman Islands.
GILLUMAnd this was part of this effort to keep this, you know, as secret, discreet, although the government says it's not covert, to really make this thing last and not have the impression that people are using some stooge program operated by America.
NNAMDIYou know, we were in Ethiopia in January and we saw quite a few USAID programs that the Ethiopian officials themselves feel that even though they would like to have ministered, that these programs are in the very least very helpful, especially to their farming communities. And when we hear secret program, Jack, we think CIA, we think FBI, we think NSA. To what extent is USAID authorized to carry out secret programs?
GILLUMWell, I mean, under national security law, frankly, anybody can conduct a covert operation. And, you know, to be clear the government says that this was not a covert plan which requires specific criteria to be that...
NNAMDIIt was discreet, yes.
GILLUMThat's right. It was a discreet program. Now under -- any agency of the federal government can run a covert operation as long as the president has been briefed and there's a presidential finder of fact and certain members in the House and the Senate are aware of this.
GILLUMThe problem that this faces for USAID and people we spoke to on Capitol Hill where there'll be hearings about this tomorrow, is that USAID when the work -- the humanitarian work they do in particular requires this trust and cooperation among foreign governments. And this might create an issue for governments who say, well is USAID on one hang helping us with, you know, a very social good program, on the other hand trying to undermine us through a social text messaging program or what else that we don't know about?
NNAMDIThe White House has said that it offered to brief congress on the program but the chairman of the committee that oversees State Department funding said he wasn't aware of it. Here is what Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont said when he was asked if he was briefed about it on MSNBC.
SENATOR PATRICK LEAHYNo, absolutely not. And if I had been I would've said, what in heaven's name are you thinking? This is dumb, dumb, dumb.
NNAMDIJack Gillum, is there a sense of who, in congress, if anyone, knew about what USAID's secret Cuban Twitter program was all about?
GILLUMWell, this program was sort of difficult to find out. I mean, we obtained documents and we had done interviews of people involved in this. And the opacity on it was pretty remarkable in the course of the reporting. And that is, you know, under the Obama Administration, which has pledged to be very transparent in its offer and in how it operates, when you even take very specific, you know, contract numbers and put them through federal databases that show a taxpayer just how their money is spent, even when you -- if you were to, you know, know on your own this very long contract number that we had in some documents of ours and plugged it into federal databases, it still doesn't show up that this is going to Cuba.
GILLUMIn fact, it says it's going to some unknown program in Pakistan under a larger USAID grant. So it's the opacity that's to both taxpayers and, you know, to Senator Patrick Leahy who chairs an appropriation subcommittee for foreign operations. I think these are questions that particularly on Capitol Hill they have as who was briefed, when were they briefed and what specifics were they told about this project?
NNAMDI800-433-8850. What do you think should be the U.S. foreign policy stance towards Cuba today, 800-433-8850. Do you think that discrete projects like USAID's Cuban Twitter should be considered democracy promotion efforts? You can also send us email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIJack, you've talked about this word, I've talked about this word and the Obama Administration has talked about this word. State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf describing the program as discrete said it wasn't covert or it wasn't classified. I guess I need to return to the AP stylebook here. What's the distinction, Jack, between discrete and secret?
GILLUMWell, I think we can pull out the Thesaurus and use whatever synonym we want to describe this. But at the end of the day this was an effort, you know, by the government's own admission to keep Uncle Sam's, you know, operations out of this and not make it known. This is why we -- they had planned to set up companies overseas. This is why they had routed money through the Cayman Islands. This is why they wanted to give it the look and feel of a bona fide social media program to not only so one could shut down by the Cuban government but also so people would, you know, be happy to use a service that they think was sort of organically grown.
NNAMDIAnd Jack, finally at its peak the social media service had 40,000 subscribers. And you had a chance to talk with at least a couple of those users. What was their reaction to reports that it was a project of the U.S. government?
GILLUMWell, I mean, they look at this as sort of their beloved -- now that it is no longer with us -- this beloved thing that really allowed them for free to talk to people. And the reason why that's important is because we might take, you know, text messaging for granted but in Cuba SMS messages can be very expensive. And there was a way through this program through the Cuban cell provider to bring down the cost and make it free to users.
GILLUMAnd they loved it. I mean, people we talked to said, you know, they converse with each other regularly in it. Most of the texts, you know, the sample texts we were able to see showed it was mostly about, you know, soccer or football or hey, let's meet at the park for lunch today.
GILLUMAnd they loved it. I mean, people we talked to said, you know, they converse with each other regularly in it. Most of the texts, you know, the sample texts we were able to see showed it was mostly about, you know, soccer or football or hey, let's meet at the park for lunch today. And when they found out that indeed it was backed by the U.S. government, you know, they were dismayed and they said, you know, nobody in any -- I think one person at no point did somebody say, welcome to ZunZuneo, brought to you by USAID.
GILLUMAnd I think they were a little startled by that to say the least.
NNAMDIWhat ended the program? Obviously, not Senator Leahy's remarks that it was dumb, dumb. What caused the program to end?
GILLUMSo there were a couple different reasons that we were hearing of why and I still think we're waiting for a full answer of why that was the case. The government told us that it ended in September 2012 because the grant money that had supported it simply ran out and they dispute that it was shut down, but rather that the money ran its course. Meanwhile, going on at the same time, talking to both the users who tried to access the service toward the end as well as documents and interviews that the engineers who helped set it up is that, you know, it appeared as if the Cuban government was catching on.
GILLUMThey tried to block ports in the internet to access it. They did this DNS blocking, which I'm sure some of your listeners have known that it happened in Turkey with Twitter. That is, DNS being the internet's phonebook. You do to a website and it tells you to go to one and it really redirects you to another one. All these sort of little efforts to bring down the program. And I think, you know, engineers became frustrated, the money ran out, it could've been one or the other, it could've been a combination of both.
NNAMDIJack Gillum is part of the Associated Press Washington investigative team that broke this story. Jack, thank you so much for joining us.
GILLUMThank you. It's good to be here.
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking with Marc Hanson, senior associate for Cuba in the Washington office on Latin America about how this will affect U.S. foreign relations in general and its relationship with Cuba in particular. But you can still call 800-433-8850. Do you think the discreet projects like USAID's Cuban tradition be considered democracy promotion efforts? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing USAID's secret Cuban Twitter program. And joining us in studio now is Marc Hanson, senior associate for Cuba at the Washington Office on Latin America. Marc Hanson, thank you for joining us.
MR. MARC HANSONThanks for having me, Kojo. Great to be here.
NNAMDICuba's director of U.S. affairs has responded to revelations that this was going on, the social media service ZunZuneo, saying it's proof the U.S. is still working to destabilize the country. How would you describe relations between the two nations before these revelations came out and what do you expect them to be like now?
HANSONWell, I think probably the single word that sums it up is fraught. I think both governments look for ways to take advantages of different opportunities to sort of call each other out and I think it doesn't lead towards a constructive relationship of any meaningful things publically. That being said, there are a lot of things going on behind the scenes.
HANSONWe understand that there's conversations between our Coast Guard and folks on the Cuban side to discuss issues of migration and security. There's a lot going on behind the scenes. Unfortunately, publically, both sides take advantage of incidents like this to dredge up old stories of the Cold War.
NNAMDIAnd I'm glad you said old stories of the Cold War because one cannot help noticing that Cuba's major threat to us existed when there was a Soviet Union and when socialism died in eastern Europe, Cuba is essentially out here on its own, yet maintains the same kind of intense focus from us that it got during the Cold War. You point out, however, that hours before the AP released this investigation, Vice President Joe Biden was meeting with the well-known Cuban opposition blogger, Yoani Sanchez in Miami.
NNAMDIWhat do you think USAID's secret involvement with ZunZuneo will mean for dissidents like Sanchez?
HANSONYou know, this is the thing that we're gonna have to unpack over the next several days, weeks, maybe even months. I think that it's no surprise that the Cuban authorities will make use of this to call out all opposition voices, legitimate and those that are paid by the U.S. government. And I think that this undermines a great deal of reformers who may be inside of government calling for greater opening right now that we don't know a lot about, but are taking place in internal conversations as well as legitimate Cuban activists who are talking publically with one another who now will be subjected to a greater level of scrutiny about whether or not they work for or are plants of the U.S. government, rather.
HANSONAnd I think something that you brought up, I mean, in the early 1960s when Kennedy signed the original embargo act, it was to weaken the Sino-Soviet bloc in the Western hemisphere and not allow it a toe hold. Earlier today, by way of Twitter, ironically, USAID's acting director of the Western hemisphere called out that this is the same type of things they did to undermine the Soviets.
HANSONI mean, we really are stuck in a mindset that doesn't take into account an awful lot of dynamism that's taking place in the island right now and it certainly doesn't leverage the existing technologies that we have at our disposal that would be so much more easily utilized in a positive constructive way if we would just undo the embargo, allow technology companies, commercial enterprises and relationships across people to people lines in cultural sectors to take place.
HANSONThat would be far more constructive if we really want to help the Cuban people and to begin to open up political space.
NNAMDII think what you get is questions like this from Connie in Annandale, Virginia. Connie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CONNIEYes, I'd like you guest to expand on the statement that any U.S. agency can conduct covert actions with a couple of secret okays from people within the administration or Congress. Who granted this kind of secret power and how do we reconcile this with a democracy and we, the informed taxpayers, knowing what our government is doing?
HANSONWell, I think there's a lot to unpack there, certainly. I would say that that's probably why both state department and White House officials are pushing back so stridently on the word secret 'cause they don’t -- I'm sure that the president had no knowledge of this, what we understand to be under $2 million program and that it was, in fact, discreet, not secret, for whatever that material difference is.
HANSONBut I think that the caller brings up a very important point. There are far more transparent above-board ways to interact with Cuba that could be very positive both for Americans as well as Cubans and I think that we should be pursuing that path and quite honestly, President Obama has in his power the ability to make travel to the island far easier, to expand the types of people who qualify as able travelers.
HANSONWe could open up entrepreneurial travel between the island and the United States. We could take Cuba off of the state sponsor of terror list, which they have no reason to be on. All of those things would create an atmosphere where change on the island would happen much more organically 'cause this notion that the United States is going to force democratic change on Cuba is farcical and quite honestly, 55 years or 50-some odd years indicate that it's just not going to happen.
NNAMDIOur guest is Marc Hanson, senior associate for Cuba at the Washington Office on Latin America. You can call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think should be the U.S.'s foreign policy stance toward Cuba today? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We got a tweet from Shana who writes, "bad idea at USAID. It will be harder for them to effectively deliver crucial aid programs around the world after this news." That, frankly, is one of the fears that a lot of people have expressed to me.
NNAMDIA Havana-born artist based in Chile was hired by ZunZunea and he eventually told the Associated Press that while he did not know the U.S. was involved, he still didn't regret what he did because the Cuban government's restrictions on speech are so bad. What do you make of the U.S. government's insistence that this was an effort to promote democracy?
HANSONYou know, I come back to the sort of the -- if you take a step back and you really look at this, what position is the U.S. government in to play this constructive role in Cuban society? For a number of years, we've had an embargo and almost a warlike posture toward Cuba. And now, a lot of people on the U.S. side have good reasons for that. They say they want human rights. They want the Cubans to have liberty and freedom and the ability to play more active roles in their own society.
HANSONBut the fact of the matter is the U.S. is not very well disposed, nor should it necessarily play that role and I think it does undermine what it is we're trying to accomplish in the world and I don't think, from the perspective of that -- I think he was of Cuban descent, this gentleman who was playing a role in the ZunZunea kind of pushing of message. You know, you wouldn't presume him to have a problem with it.
HANSONHe might not take into account the role that U.S. plays vis a vis Cuba in a sophisticated fashion so it doesn't surprise me that some Cubans and some Cuban exiles would think this to be a very positive way to interact. I simply don't think it's the right tactic and I think it really undermines what we'd like to see happen in Cuba.
NNAMDIHere now is Ellen in Brookville, Maryland. Ellen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELLENHi. Can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
ELLENOkay. I just returned from a trip to Cuba. I was lucky enough to go on an off-road trip and I found the people very open and entrepreneurial and they took us not right to the port, but to where they're building a new port in Mariel. And they just had wonderful ideas and hopes for their country and I feel like we're missing a tremendous opportunity to participate with them, rather than to in any way try to stop them.
ELLENThat country is ripe for growth and I think it's going to do wonderful things and I think we're going to miss the boat.
NNAMDIThere is this feeling expressed by our caller, Ellen, that others have expressed, Marc Hanson, that the U.S. may be on the brink of a breakthrough with Cuba and that that kind of breakthrough might be undermined by this kind of activity. But when people say a breakthrough, what do they exactly mean?
HANSONI think when they talk about a breakthrough with Cuba, it depends on the author of the statement. Some people want to topple the regime and so when the screws are tightened on them, they think that's gonna be close to a breakthrough because we might have a broad social unrest that leads towards a transformation of the government. I personally don't think that's the path that we'll ultimately take.
HANSONI think there's going to be an evolution of the Cuban government and the breakthrough we should be talking about is whether or not U.S. policymakers can conceive of themselves playing a very different role in the politics of Cuba, simply by changing our own politics for our own reasons. It'd be a better foreign policy is we were to end the embargo for a variety of reasons, one of which is countries throughout the region have already embraced Cuba.
HANSONWe're the only ones on the outside looking in at this point and it's jeopardizing our standing in the region. The UN notably, late last year, had another -- I think it's 20-second vote on whether or not the embargo was a good policy or was a legitimate policy and they came out with two votes with the U.S. and well over 180 against. And I think that the U.S. undermines its own foreign policy with its embargo and these other shenanigans, which are part and parcel of that embargo.
HANSONIf we would simply allow for a normal interaction between U.S. commercial interests and communications interests and people to people as the caller has been able to travel to Cuba, that would be the type of thing that would help Cuba move in a direction of its own choosing, which I think would be towards more opening and better interactions with the U.S.
NNAMDIAccording to the AP investigation, much of the planning for the secret Cuban Twitter program happened after USAID contractor Alan Gross, a native of Maryland, was arrested by the Cuban government accusing him of spying for the U.S. He remains in prison. What do you think this program will mean for the state department's ongoing efforts to get him released?
HANSONWell, you know, I can only presume that this is a step backwards. Obviously, the Cubans had this in mind and Alan Gross was conducting a USAID program that now we're seeing there are these multiple USAID programs that are in contradiction to Cuban law and certainly the Americans involved in this know that the Cubans didn't want it and knew that they were partaking in illegal activities.
HANSONAnd I think that the negotiations over Alan Gross, first of all, I think they should be happening at the highest level. I really think the president should nominate somebody or empower somebody to spend some time with the Cubans to figure out exactly what's necessary to bring him home and should do everything in their power to get Alan Gross home. I think that should be fundamental to what our government is pursuing right now.
NNAMDIOur guest is Marc Hanson. He is senior associate for Cuba at the Washington Office on...
NNAMDI...Latin America. WOLA.
NNAMDIThere's now a young generation of Cubans born after the Cold War period. How do you think this secret Cuban Twitter program will affect the U.S.'s image among young people in Cuba, many of whom may have been more than likely users of that social media service?
HANSONWell, it might be a little bit like the NSA revelations are for U.S. young people. I think it makes people a little bit circumspect about these new technologies. Hopeful that the government isn't taking advantage of their liberties, but not with a great deal of confidence that they're not being taken advantage of. And I think that people will be careful, but I think ultimately they will use them for their own needs and I doubt very much that they'll be used for, you know, smart mobs, as USAID was hoping to generate by way of their contractors' memos that they be released.
NNAMDIWith this secret Cuban Twitter program, USAID essentially became a tech entrepreneur in Cuba. Why can't private tech companies do what the U.S. government did and provide a social media service for Cubans?
HANSONI think they can and they should. Global post actually had a long article on this in 2012 and I don't know the updates from that, but what they basically recounted was that the embargo impedes an awful lot of actors from being able to engage in these types of communication technology with Cubans. And you know, there's been a lot of back and forth about who's responsible for Cuba not having a cable line between Florida and Cuba.
HANSONAnd the Cuban government will say it's because the U.S. won't permit it and the U.S. government says, of course we would permit it. It's because the Cubans want to control it too much. You know, it's very hard to get to the truth of that matter, but, you know, it's true, the Cubans do not have a tremendous amount of space for political opposition and that's a shame. There should be more openings, but programs like the U.S.'s ZunZuneo don't help that and certainly the embargo undermined it as well.
NNAMDIAnd finally, Congress will address the secret Cuban Twitter program in a hearing next week. What could the U.S. do at this point to respond to some of the backlash both here and abroad about USAID's actions?
HANSONWell, you know, I should say, Kojo, I worked with Congressman Sam Farr in 2007 to 2010 when some of these programs were getting started. He's an appropriator. He had expressed a great deal of interest to President Obama to work on Cuba policy with him. He handed him a letter when they flew down to Trinidad for some of the America's first foray into Latin America affairs for then President Obama and, you know, we certainly weren't briefed.
HANSONNothing came across our desk suggesting that this is what they were doing with the millions of dollars being allocated for Cuba and I suspect that we weren't alone in not being briefed and I think that the hearing tomorrow at 10:30, Senator Leahy will get to the bottom of some of these things.
NNAMDIMarc Hanson is senior associate for Cuba at the Washington Office on Latin America. Marc Hanson, thank you so much for joining us.
HANSONIt was my pleasure. Thanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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