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U.S. Created a Cuban Twitter to Overthrow Government - Report

By Jose Pagliery | 4/3/2014, 11:07 a.m.
The U.S. government secretly created a Twitter-like social media service to subvert Cuba's communist government, according to an investigative report ...
An old collective taxi rumbles down Havana's malecon, driving past Cuba's famous Hotel Nacional on May 5, 2010. Photo by David Ariosto/CNN.

NEW YORK - The U.S. government secretly created a Twitter-like social media service to subvert Cuba's communist government, according to an investigative report by the Associated Press.

The AP says U.S. government officials developed an app called ZunZuneo -- named after the chirping sound of a hummingbird -- to cause social unrest.

U.S. efforts to undermine the Castro regime in Havana are nothing new. There was a poison cigar, an exploding seashell, lethal pills and a fugus-ridden diving suit. But cooking up a tech startup with -- literally -- revolutionary intentions? That's something else.

To get around Cuba's iron grip control on technology and outside influence via the Internet, ZunZuneo was a low-tech version of Twitter fed by cell phone text messages, the AP reported.

The goal was obvious: recreate the sort of pro-democracy, Twitter-empowered protests that fueled the Arab Spring in 2011 and toppled corrupt governments in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere.

The project had up to 40,000 subscribers in 2011, but it disappeared by mid-2012 amid pressure by the Cuban government. The AP cited sensitive documents and several anonymous interviews with private contractors who signed on for the covert operation.

The most startling aspect of the revelations is that the entire project wasn't run by spies in the Central Intelligence Agency. Instead, it was masterminded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which distributes humanitarian aid.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately provide comment to CNNMoney.

ZunZuneo is only the latest in a long, combative history between the United States and Cuba. During his years in power, Fidel Castro often warned the Cuban people that the "Yankee imperialist invaders" were trying to subvert his government. There was 1961's Bay of Bigs, in which CIA-trained Cuban exiles attempted a heavily-armed beach invasion that was botched by their U.S. backers. A U.S. senate committee in 1975 revealed eight separate CIA attempts to assassinate Castro.

In recent decades, the U.S. government has adopted a more passive approach to Cuba, including the funding of Radio y Televisión Martí, a service that delivers pro-democracy discourse to the island from its base in Miami, Fla. The Cuban government has tried to jam those signals with limited success.

The launch of ZunZuneo was timed to coincide with more relaxed Cuban laws on technology and communication. Cubans couldn't legally buy a computer until 2007. They were prohibited from owning mobile phones until 2008. And access to the Web is scant, usually available at expensive Internet cafés.

ZunZuneo might have been a secret government project, but its existence comes as no surprise, said Jorge Duany, director of Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami. Yet he questions whether the attempt ever had a chance of success.

Authoritarian surveillance in Cuba is pervasive and hyperlocal -- every residential block has a government-appointed official who reports any questionable activities or anti-government sentiment.

"I wouldn't expect a sudden massive explosion of people going to the streets of people fighting for change or asking for a major regime change yet," he said.

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