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U.S. Penned Political Satire In Secret Cuban Twitter PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 09 April 2014 21:38

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

US Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 9, before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on "U.S. Foreign Assistance in fiscal 2015: What Are the Priorities, How Effective?"

WASHINGTON (AP) — Draft messages produced for a Twitter-like service in Cuba that the U.S. government secretly funded were overtly political, documents obtained by The Associated Press show, even though the Obama administration has said the program had a more-neutral purpose.

The early messages poked fun at the Castro government and were created by a political satirist working for the social media project. Those messages conflict with the U.S. government's earlier assertions that its program didn't promulgate political content.

Disclosure of the text messages came as U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah told Congress in sometimesconfrontational testimony Tuesday that his agency's program was simply meant to increase the flow of information in a country that heavily restricts Internet access.

An AP investigation last week found that the program, known as ZunZuneo, evaded Cuba's digital restrictions by creating a text-messaging service that could be used to organize political demonstrations. It drew tens of thousands of subscribers who were unaware it was backed by the U.S. government, which went to great lengths to conceal its involvement.

Some lawmakers in Washington have expressed support for ZunZuneo since the AP's original disclosure. At a House Foreign Affairs hearing with Shah Wednesday, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., called U.S.-led democracy efforts in Cuba "transparent" and whether they ultimately were transmitted by the service, which the government said ceased in 2012 because of a lack of funding.

One draft message read: "THE BACKWARDS WORLD: 54% of Americans think Michael Jackson is alive and 86% of Cubans think Fidel Castro is dead." Another called Castro the "The coma-andante," a reference to Fidel's age.

"No," wrote organizers, apparently rejecting that text. "Too political."

A USAID spokesman did not respond to requests seeking comment.

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf last week said that "no political content was ever supplied by anyone working on this project or running it. It was the people — the Cuban people on the ground who were doing so."

"When it started, the folks who operated it put weather content on it, sports content on it to get it up and running, but no political content was ever supplied by anyone working on this project or running it," Harf said.

However, Alen Lauzan Falcon, a Cuban-born satirical artist, said Tuesday that he was hired to write the political texts, though he was never told about ZunZuneo's U.S. origins. "I don't do cultural humor," he said. "I do political humor. Everything I do is politics even if it is humor about politics."

Shah said Tuesday that Congress was notified about this program every year since 2008 in documents outlining USAID's budget. "The fact that we are discussing it in this forum, and that it is an unclassified program, illustrates that this is not a covert effort," he said.

He said "parts of it were done discreetly" to protect the people involved. He cited a study by the Government Accountability Office into democracypromotion programs — including the Cuban Twitter project — that found them to be consistent with the law. But the author of the GAO study told the AP that investigators did not examine the question of whether the programs were covert.

The program's effects could be far-reaching. Leahy said USAID employees have been contacting the oversight committee to complain that such secretive programs put them at risk because they drive perceptions that the agency is engaged in intelligence-like activities.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Shah was to address Thursday, said USAID should be applauded for giving people in Cuba a less-controlled platform to talk to each other.

The ZunZuneo project was publicly launched in Cuba months after American contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba. He was imprisoned after traveling repeatedly on a separate, clandestine USAID mission to expand Cuban Internet access using sensitive technology that only governments use.

Early Tuesday, Gross' lawyer released a statement that his client was going on a hunger strike. The ZunZuneo story was "one of the factors" Gross took into account in connection with his hunger strike, the attorney said.

"Once Alan was arrested, it is shocking that USAID would imperil his safety even further by running a covert operation in Cuba," said the lawyer, Scott Gilbert. "USAID has made one absurdly bad decision after another."

Orsi reported from Havana. Associated Press writers Richard Lardner in Washington and Alberto Arce in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, contributed to this report.

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Last Updated on Wednesday, 09 April 2014 21:48
 






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