ON AIR NOW

LISTEN NOW

Weather

Sponsored By: Two Men and a Truck
heavy-rain-night
77°
Sct Thunderstorms
H 86° L 77°
  • heavy-rain-night
    77°
    Current Conditions
    Sct Thunderstorms. H 86° L 77°
  • partly-cloudy-tstorms-day
    85°
    Afternoon
    Sct Thunderstorms. H 86° L 77°
  • cloudy-day
    82°
    Evening
    Mostly Cloudy. H 86° L 77°
LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

The latest top stories

00:00 | 00:00

LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

The latest traffic report

00:00 | 00:00

LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

The latest forecast

00:00 | 00:00

US secretly built 'Cuban Twitter' to stir unrest

The U.S. government masterminded the creation of a "Cuban Twitter" — a communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba, built with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks, The Associated Press has learned.

The project, which lasted more than two years and drew tens of thousands of subscribers, sought to evade Cuba's stranglehold on the Internet with a primitive social media platform. First, the network would build a Cuban audience, mostly young people; then, the plan was to push them toward dissent.

Yet its users were neither aware it was created by a U.S. agency with ties to the State Department, nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.

It is unclear whether the scheme was legal under U.S. law, which requires written authorization of covert action by the president and congressional notification. Officials at USAID would not say who had approved the program or whether the White House was aware of it. The Cuban government declined a request for comment.

At minimum, details uncovered by the AP appear to muddy the U.S. Agency for International Development's longstanding claims that it does not conduct covert actions, and could undermine the agency's mission to deliver aid to the world's poor and vulnerable — an effort that requires the trust and cooperation of foreign governments.

USAID and its contractors went to extensive lengths to conceal Washington's ties to the project, according to interviews and documents obtained by the AP. They set up front companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to hide the money trail, and recruited CEOs without telling them they would be working on a U.S. taxpayer-funded project.

>> Read more trending stories

"There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement," according to a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord Inc., one of the project's creators. "This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission."

The project, dubbed "ZunZuneo," slang for a Cuban hummingbird's tweet, was publicly launched shortly after the 2009 arrest in Cuba of American contractor Alan Gross. He was imprisoned after traveling repeatedly to the country on a separate, clandestine USAID mission to expand Internet access using sensitive technology that only governments use.

USAID said in a statement that it is "proud of its work in Cuba to provide basic humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people," whom it said "have lived under an authoritarian regime" for 50 years. The agency said its work was found to be "consistent with U.S. law."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and chairman of the Appropriations Committee's State Department and foreign operations subcommittee, said the ZunZuneo revelations were troubling.

"There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a U.S. government-funded activity," he said. "There is the clandestine nature of the program that was not disclosed to the appropriations subcommittee with oversight responsibility. And there is the fact that it was apparently activated shortly after Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was sent to Cuba to help provide citizens access to the Internet, was arrested."

The AP obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents about the project's development. It independently verified the project's scope and details in the documents through publicly available databases, government sources and interviews with those involved in ZunZuneo.

ZunZuneo would seem to be a throwback from Cold War, and the decades-long struggle between the United States and Cuba. It came at a time when the historically sour relationship between the countries had improved, at least marginally, and Cuba had made tentative steps toward a more market-based economy.

The social media project began development in 2009 after Washington-based Creative Associates International obtained a half-million Cuban cellphone numbers. It was unclear to the AP how the numbers were obtained, although documents indicate they were done so illicitly from a key source inside the country's state-run provider. Project organizers used those numbers to start a subscriber base.

ZunZuneo's organizers wanted the social network to grow slowly to avoid detection by the Cuban government. Eventually, documents and interviews reveal, they hoped the network would reach critical mass so that dissidents could organize "smart mobs" — mass gatherings called at a moment's notice — that could trigger political demonstrations, or "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society."

The Cuban government has a tight grip on information, and the country's leaders view the Internet as a "wild colt" that "should be tamed." ZunZuneo's leaders planned to push Cuba "out of a stalemate through tactical and temporary initiatives, and get the transition process going again toward democratic change."

At a 2011 speech at George Washington University, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. helps people in "oppressive Internet environments get around filters." Noting Tunisia's role in the Arab Spring, she said people used technology to help "fuel a movement that led to revolutionary change."

Suzanne Hall, then a State Department official working on Clinton's social media efforts, helped spearhead an attempt to get Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to take over the ZunZuneo project. Dorsey declined to comment.

The estimated $1.6 million spent on ZunZuneo was publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan, public government data show, but those documents don't reveal where the funds were actually spent.

ZunZuneo's organizers worked hard to create a network that looked like a legitimate business, including the creation of a companion website — and marketing campaign — so users could subscribe and send their own text messages to groups of their choice.

"Mock ad banners will give it the appearance of a commercial enterprise," one written proposal obtained by the AP said. Behind the scenes, ZunZuneo's computers were also storing and analyzing subscribers' messages and other demographic information, including gender, age, "receptiveness" and "political tendencies." USAID believed the demographics on dissent could help it target its other Cuba programs and "maximize our possibilities to extend our reach."

"It was such a marvelous thing," said Ernesto Guerra, a Cuban user who never suspected his beloved network had ties to Washington.

"How was I supposed to realize that?" Guerra asked in an interview in Havana. "It's not like there was a sign saying, 'Welcome to ZunZuneo, brought to you by USAID.'"

Executives set up a corporation in Spain and an operating company in the Cayman Islands — a well-known British offshore tax haven — to pay the company's bills so the "money trail will not trace back to America," a strategy memo said. That would have been a catastrophic blow, they concluded, because it would undermine the service's credibility with subscribers and get shut down by the Cuban government.

Similarly, subscribers' messages were funneled through two other countries — but never through American-based computer servers.

Denver-based Mobile Accord considered at least a dozen candidates to head the European front company. One candidate, Francoise de Valera, told the AP she was told nothing about Cuba or U.S. involvement.
James Eberhard, Mobile Accord's CEO and a key player in the project's development, declined to comment. Creative Associates referred questions to USAID.

For more than two years, ZunZuneo grew and reached at least 40,000 subscribers. But documents reveal the team found evidence Cuban officials tried to trace the text messages and break into the ZunZuneo system. USAID told the AP that ZunZuneo stopped in September 2012 when a government grant ended.

ZunZuneo vanished abruptly in 2012, and the Communist Party remains in power — with no Cuban Spring on the horizon.

"The moment when ZunZuneo disappeared, (it) was like a vacuum," said Guerra, the ZunZuneo user. "In the end, we never learned what happened. We never learned where it came from."

___


Contributing to this report were Associated Press researcher Monika Mathur in Washington, and AP writers Andrea Rodriguez and Peter Orsi in Havana. Arce reported from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Read More
VIEW COMMENTS

There are no comments yet. Be the first to post your thoughts. or Register.

The Latest News Headlines

  • A pregnant woman is still recovering from a brown recluse spider bite that happened over a month ago.  Kendall Butler was woken by the bite. She killed the spider and took it to the hospital with her immediately. >> Read more trending news Doctors were able to stop the infection and keep her unborn child safe by using antibiotics. However, she does have a large area of skin on her stomach that died because of the spider’s venom. Doctors said they don’t want to fully treat the wound yet because of the baby. Originally, the plan was to evacuate the wound and then look into skin grafts once the child is born. Now, Butler’s doctors say the wound needs to be evacuated sooner. They will wait until July 10 when the baby is seven weeks from the due date. Experts believe she’ll be strong enough by then to be born early, just in case anything happens during the procedure. A Green Country entomologist said that Oklahoma’s mild winter caused more dangerous insects to come out early. Experts say people should take precautions against insects while outside, but that there isn’t much to be done indoors but have homes sprayed. The Centers for Disease Control says that even though people fear bug spray with DEET is bad for pregnant women, it’s actually recommended with the same precautions as those who are not pregnant or lactating.
  • An inmate was shot and killed Wednesday after authorities said he grabbed a deputy's gun and fired it at Nashville's 100 Oaks Mall, according to multiple reports. >> Read more trending news In a tweet around 2 p.m. local time, Vanderbilt University officials wrote that a shooting was reported at the 100 Oaks Mall campus of Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
  • A California man accused of killing his missing 5-year-old son laughed and attempted to joke with a Las Vegas judge Tuesday during an extradition hearing. Aramazd Andressian Sr., 35, of South Pasadena, was arrested Friday and charged with murder in the presumed death of his son, Aramazd Andressian Jr., who has been missing since April. Andressian, who authorities believe was preparing to flee to a country that would not extradite him back to the U.S., is being held in lieu of a $10 million bond.  Investigators had Andressian taken into custody in Las Vegas, where he lived on and off in the two months since his son was last seen, to prevent his potential flight. Reporters from KTLA in Los Angeles were in a courtroom there on Tuesday for Andressian’s extradition hearing.  Video from the news station showed Andressian, who had recently shaved off his beard and dyed his dark hair blond, smiling and laughing with fellow inmates. During Andressian’s time before the bench, the judge asked him if he intended to fight extradition.  “No, I never came here in an attempt to flee,” Andressian said.  When the judge mentioned the California media present in the courtroom, Andressian joked that the reporters could take him back with them.  KTLA reported that Aramazd Andressian Jr., whose nickname was Piqui, was last seen leaving Disneyland with his father around 1 a.m. April 21. Andressian told authorities he took his son to the Cachuma Lake Recreation Area in Santa Barbara County later that morning. Though investigators did find evidence that Andressian was at the lake that day, there were no sightings of Piqui.   The boy’s mother, Ana Estevez, reported him missing on April 22 when Andressian failed to show up for the scheduled custody exchange of their son. The Los Angeles Times reported that Andressian was found unconscious that same day in a South Pasadena park. His gray 2004 BMW was doused in gasoline, the Times said. Authorities said Andressian had taken prescription pills in what they believe was an attempted suicide.  Though he was initially held in his son’s disappearance, he was later released due to lack of evidence. Andressian, who said he didn’t know what happened to his son, stopped cooperating and hired a lawyer, authorities said.  >> Read more trending news Investigators have said little about the circumstantial evidence against Andressian, but have said that, as Estevez, multiple law enforcement agencies and volunteers searched in vain for the boy, Andressian was instead “socializing” in Las Vegas. “He was taking part in activities and displaying mannerisms that were not consistent with a grieving parent,” Los Angeles County sheriff’s Lt. Joe Mendoza said Monday at a news conference.  Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said at the news conference that trying a murder case without a victim’s body has challenges, but that her office has prosecuted similar cases successfully in the past.  “It may seem unusual to file murder charges when we have not yet found the child’s body,” Lacey said. “But rest assured, my office has successfully prosecuted such cases before.” Investigators said they believe that Andressian killed his son in a “pre-planned event” because of an acrimonious divorce from his ex-wife. Estevez released a statement about the loss of her son, the Times reported.  “My heart is shattered, and I will miss my son immensely each and every second of every day for the rest of my life,” she said. “Piqui was everything great in my life, and I cannot imagine the emptiness and void that I will bear until we are together again someday.” A $30,000 reward is being offered for information on Piqui’s disappearance. 
  • He's accused of robbing two businesses only a few minutes apart.   The Jacksonville Beach Police Department has arrested Andrew Harrison, 32, after witnesses from both scenes positively identified him as the suspect. Police say Harrison first entered the Pet Supermarket at 609 Beach Boulevard Wednesday afternoon, where he gave the clerk a note demanding money and stating that he had a gun.   He then allegedly took the money and ran across the street to Sunrise Surf Shop, located at 834 Beach Boulevard.   But when he presented a clerk there with the same note demanding money, several male employees chased him off.   Police arrested Harrison a short time later behind European Street Cafe, after a foot pursuit.   No injuries were reported in either robbery.
  • A potentially lethal parasite has been found in pockets of Florida, including St. Johns County.  University of Florida researchers say rat lungworm was detected in St. Johns, Alachua, Leon, Orange, and Hillsborough counties. Those behind the study believe it’s likely there are more counties affected, as the parasite expands its geographic range.  Rat lungworm is carried by rats and snails and can cause meningitis. It can be contracted by both humans and animals, through eating infected snails, frogs, or crustaceans. Symptoms include headache, stiff neck, fever, vomiting, nausea, and paralysis of the face and limbs. The fatality rate in humans is low, according to UF researchers, but could lead to meningitis, which could escalate to coma or death. The parasite generally manifests in animals as limb weakness, paralysis, neck pain, central nervous system problems, and potentially meningitis.  Researchers say the parasite is apparently able to infect multiple snail species, which could include native populations. Rat lungworm further thrives in a tropical climate, so rising temperatures could facilitate its spread.  More than 2,800 cases of human rat lungworm have been documented worldwide, although researchers believe the actual number of cases to be higher. There have been no human infections in Florida.  To lower the risk of infection, you’re urged to wash produce and use caution when eating snails or undercooked frogs or crustaceans. You should also warn your children against handling snails. You can protect pets and livestock by checking living spaces and water troughs for snails. Additionally, use extreme caution around rats.

The Latest News Videos