U.S. dirty tricks

Print edition : May 30, 2014

The “Cuban Twitter” at its peak attracted 40,000 subscribers whose numbers were obtained illegally. Here, a woman uses her cell phone as she sits on the Malecon in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Franklin Reyes/AP

Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee overseeing the USAID budget, and Rajiv Shah, USAID administrator, in Washington on April 8, following the subcommittee's hearing of USAID's 2015 budget. Shah claimed that the ZunZuneo project was not a “covert” operation but only a “discreet” programme. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Alan Gross, an American contractor sent by USAID to Cuba, who is now serving term in a Cuban jail. He was asked to distribute discreetly communication equipment to "dissidents". Photo: James L. Berenthal/AP

An investigation blows the lid off USAID’s covert Twitter-like platform aimed at destabilising the Cuban government.

AN investigative report by the Associated Press (AP) in April has revealed the details of a covert United States programme code-named the “ZunZuneo project”. The programme, started at the end of the last decade, was aimed at destabilising the Cuban government. According to the report, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched the project, named after Cuban slang for the call of a humming bird, to set up a Twitter-style social media platform. It worked through a chain of fake companies and computer servers located in Spain, Costa Rica, Ireland and the United Kingdom in order to conceal its identity. Money was transferred through a clandestine bank account in the Cayman Islands. An American “asset” working inside the Cuban government provided it the phone numbers of at least 40,000 Cubans who subscribed to the service.

The text messages on ZunZuneo initially pertained only to the weather and sports, but gradually they began to acquire a political colour. Off-colour jokes about the Cuban leadership and the economy became a staple. AP, in its investigative report, said the plan was to introduce anti-government political content gradually and then hope that the twitter-like service would achieve a critical mass that would enable the mobilisation of “flash mobs” during “critical/opportunistic situations”. The conclusion the American news agency has drawn from the documents it has obtained is that the ultimate aim was regime change, which was described as a plan “to renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society”.

This is yet another illustration of the ongoing attempts by the U.S. to destabilise governments that are not subservient to its interests. Although the “ZunZuneo project” was abandoned in 2012 owing to lack of funds, different U.S. agencies are involved in other efforts to undermine governments in different parts of the world and they use the media as the preferred tool for subversion.

USAID had tried to attract private covert funding from anti-Castro Cuban emigre groups in Havana after funds dried up for the ZunZuneo project, the AP report revealed. It said the project, “aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government”, was overseen by USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI). The OTI, a division of the U.S. State Department, was created after the end of the Cold War to help Washington influence the fast-changing political scenario in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world “without the usual red tape”. In Eastern Europe, as recent history has shown, the U.S. was successful in staging “colour revolutions” in countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. It is another matter that these “revolutions” were short-lived and boomeranged on the West. The current events in Ukraine are the latest illustration of this.

In Latin America, the U.S. has been working overtime to destabilise democratically elected governments that have close ties with Cuba and Venezuela. Ecuador and Bolivia have been high on the American hit list since the election of Rafael Correa and Evo Morales respectively to the helm of affairs in those two countries. In June 2012, the nine-member ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), which includes Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Dominica, Bolivia and Nicaragua, expelled USAID. The regional grouping charged USAID with interfering in the internal affairs of their countries under the guise of “planning and administering economic and humanitarian assistance” while actually financing non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and actions and projects designed to destabilise governments that do not share their common interests. ALBA was quick to condemn the ZunZuneo project, labelling it “illegal and immoral”. A statement issued by ALBA said the “subversive meddling” by the U.S. “flagrantly violated international law and the sovereignty of Cuba”.

Declassified documents of the OTI have revealed its extensive role in the abortive coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2002. More recent OTI documents that have been brought under public purview by WikiLeaks show that U.S. interference in the internal affairs of the country continued unabated even after the failed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-backed coup attempt. A State Department cable of November 2006 spelt out clearly the U.S. strategy to counter the popularity of Chavez. U.S. diplomats in the country were told to implement a five-point strategy that included penetrating the ruling party’s political base and protecting vital U.S. business interests and isolating Chavez internationally. The U.S. administration went about implementing the strategy by, among other things, providing liberal funding and training facilities for the opposition activists. The cable describes in detail some of the successes achieved in the field with the active of cooperation of USAID/OTI-funded NGOs.

As the WikiLeaks cables show, many of the opposition leaders funded by the U.S. State Department are the ones in the forefront of the agitation in Venezuela, which began in late January. Maria Corano Machado, who runs a U.S.-funded NGO, is among the most prominent leaders of the agitation which has claimed the lives of more than 40 persons so far. Maria Machado, along with Leopoldo Lopez, another protege of Washington, had launched the “La Salida” (the exit) campaign with the stated goal of regime change, despite Nicolas Maduro winning the presidential election last year and the ruling party routing the opposition in the provincial and municipal elections held late last year.

In 2008, the American-backed opposition in Bolivia launched a virulent and racist campaign against President Morales. The Bolivian government retaliated by expelling the U.S. Ambassador for his failure to disclose the names of the recipients of the largesse USAID had doled out. Most of the money had gone to favoured opposition figures and NGOs. Bolivia and Ecuador have both expelled USAID from their countries on charges of funding NGOs, opposition groups and peasant organisations for the purpose of destabilising their governments.

Not an honest broker

Meanwhile, the government of Costa Rica has asked the Barack Obama administration to explain the reasons for setting up a secret “Cuban Twitter” network on its territory, despite its warning in 2009 that such a move would impact adversely its bilateral relations with Cuba. Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo told the media in late April that it was “inappropriate” on the part of the U.S. to use his country as a location for the development of a social media network aimed at destabilising a third country. The ZunZuneo team had initially operated out of Central America.

USAID spokesman Matt Herrick, however, insisted that the Costa Rican government was very much in the loop. He asserted that the Costa Rican government was “informed on the programme on more than one occasion”. The Costa Rican government, from available information, had stopped cooperating with the U.S. on the ZunZuneo project in 2009. Two American contractors working on the project were not granted “diplomatic status” by the government in that year. An internal memorandum of the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry noted that the project “could create a situation politically inconvenient since it can be interpreted that it could violate the principles of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries”.

Congressman Jason Huffetz, Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said what USAID was doing was wrong. “USAID is flying the American flag and should be recognised around the world as an honest broker of doing good. If they start participating in covert, subversive activities, the credibility of the United States is diminished,” he commented. Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee overseeing the USAID budget, denied assertions that the controversial USAID programmes were debated in Congress. “If you are going to do a covert operation like this for regime change, assuming it ever makes any sense, it’s not something that should be done through USAID,” Leahy said.

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah claims that the ZunZuneo project was not a “covert” operation but only a “discreet” programme. USAID had dispatched an American “contractor”, Alan Gross, to Cuba to discreetly distribute communications equipment to “dissidents” on the island. He was arrested by the Cuban authorities in 2011. Gross is now serving a 15-year jail term for acts committed against the sovereignty and integrity of the Cuban state. His lawyer in the U.S., Scott Gilbert, accused USAID of harming the chances of an early judicial reprieve for his client by continuing to run “a covert operation” on the island.

The noted investigative journalist Glen Greenwald, who played a key role in exposing the massive worldwide snooping activities of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), has described the “Cuban Twitter” scam as a drop in the U.S. Internet propaganda bucket. “These ideas —discussions of how to exploit the Internet, specifically social media, to surreptitiously disseminate viewpoints friendly to Western interests and spread false or damaging information about targets—appear repeatedly throughout the archive of materials provided by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden,” Greenwald observed in a recent article.

During a press conference in the last week of April, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the Internet as “a CIA project”. He said the project was still in a “developing stage” and that countries like Russia needed protection from it. Putin explained that the Internet “first appeared as a special CIA project” and though it later was made available to the open market, the “special services are still at the centre of things”.