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ZunZuneo,The Covert Twittersphere Of Cuba That Was, Until It Wasn't!

Mainstream media has been slow on the uptick in covering the U.S. government's current investigation of ZunZuneo by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy. If you are unfamiliar with the name, it's most likely because of the covert actions that led to Patrick LeahyPatrick Leahythe rise and fall of this enterprise. Created in 2009 and disbanded in 2012 [due to lack of funding], not many know that a social network very similar to Twitter ever existed on the repressive island of Cuba.

The controversial project was dubbed 'ZunZuneo' in reference to the Cuban slang term for the "call of the hummingbird." But, however unassuming the name, it's intent is muddied in political intrigue worthy of a plot line you might expect on the hit TV political drama, "Scandal."

Since Twitter has had the capability of rallying dissenters to take to the streets for various causes around the world, the factions behind this social network wanted to ignite a similar flame that would lead to a 'Cuban Spring.' Comparable to the Arab Spring that went before, or the current uprisings in the Ukraine [see previous post titled, "'Ukranian Spring' Is Just Around The Corner - Wait It's Here"], ZunZuneo was allegedly created to prompt Cuban dissidents to overtake their government. 

The site publicly launched, shortly after the 2009 arrest in Cuba of American contractor Alan Gross. He was Allen GrossAllen Grossimprisoned after traveling repeatedly to the country on clandestine missions for the United States Agency for International Development [USAID] to expand Internet access for Cubans using enhanced technology that apparently came from the U.S. government.

An AP report broke the story on April 3, saying the US built a social network using 'front' companies and foreign banks set up in Spain and the Cayman Island to hide the money trail, and then recruited CEOs without telling them they would be working on a U.S. taxpayer-funded project.

So covert was this operation, that Mobile Accord, Inc. [one of the project's creators] urged in a retrieved memorandum that "there will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement -- this is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission."

This program's app was distributed to Cuban cell phone users that allowed them to communicate with one another for free. Being called a "twitter-type platform," it was said to be manufactured by these alleged 'shell' companies.

In a blog post, titled "Eight Facts About ZunZuneo," USAID swung back in retaliation stating the wire service "falsely characterized" their program [Note: It's important to understant, that up till now, USAID had only been associated with humanitarian projects].

In their defense, USAID responded that ZunZuneo was not a covert program, nor was it designed to overthrow the Communist regime on the island -- and that it was funded legally, publicly and transparently with allocated U.S. dollars, earmarked in the government's fiscal budget.

NPR's David Greene reported on April 8th, that Democratic Senator, Patrick Leahy was conducting a senate panel to unravel the web that seems to have been a cover-up - and one that might have kept the 68,000 Cubans who used ZunZuneo in the dark as to who was actually subsidizing the platform.

USAID denies there was anything improper about the network and Rajiv Shah, head of USAID answers Rajiv ShahRajiv Shahquestions today before Leahy's Senate panel. The White House has also come out on the defense stating it was "all above board."

Jay CarneyJay CarneyU.S. Press Secretary, Jay Carney issued the government's official position on the case: "Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong - Congress funds 'democracy programming' to Cuba to help empower Cubans to access more information and to strengthen civil society. These appropriations are public unlike covert action. The money invested has been debated in Congress."

At the end of the day, the questions on the table remain whether or not ZunZuneo was either an effort to promote free speech in a repressive country or a covert program meant to destabilize the Cuban Government? or could it have been both? 

Experts in the United States say the failed project, active only between 2009 and 2012, should raise serious questions about US policies towards the communist-run Caribbean island.

What hangs as a dubious cloud is the uncertainty of the true nature of this initiative? If USAID's intentions were indeed above board and funds were rightfully allocated in the U.S. budget, why did the funding mysteriously cease in 2012?

And coincidentally enough, since Senator Leahy who is chairing this investigation also had oversight on the Senate appropriations subcommittee that authorizes the spending for USAID, how - of all people - did he not know about any of this, before now? As has been reported, Leahy has stated affirmatively, he was not aware of the "Cuban Titter" project being on the table for consideration, let alone ever being approved in the budget, when he was in charge.

"If I had been, I would have said, 'What in heaven's name are you thinking?'" he said on MSNBC last week. "If you're going to do a covert operation like this for a regime change, assuming it ever makes any sense, it's not something that should be done through USAID."

Was this a security gambit gone awry? The Arab Spring and those that followed were created organically where the social media tools of Twitter and Facebook allowed the dissemination of information in real-time to motivate the masses. It appears in this instance, this model was the one the powers-to-be wanted to emulate. Except, instead of a true grass-roots movement rising up from the people to enact change, they instead chose to take the stereotypical Big Brother approach of working from the top down.

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Ron Callari
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