Is Zunzuneo, Cuba’s Version of Twitter, a Secret U.S. Creation?

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By Vittorio Hernandez | April 4, 2014 11:35 AM EST

If China has Weibo, Cuba has Zunzuneo, the communist country's version of popular microblogging site Twitter.

REUTERS
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2010, before his health reportedly began to rapidly decline.

The setting up of alternative microblogging site is seen as the response of socialist governments that could not deny their citizens the use of Internet technology, but insist on retaining censorship to prevent the use of technology in undermining the government.

However, an AP article in Huffington Post claims that  Zunzuneo is a secret creation of the U.S. government to help undermine the government led by Raul Castro, brother of Cuban strongman Fidel Castro.

Although access to the Internet is still restricted in Cuba, the present leader has allowed and encouraged the use of mobile phones. But text messaging is an expensive service in the communist nation.

The report named a Joe McSpedon, an American government official, as the person behind the microblogging site. Together with his team of high-tech contractors from Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Washington, the met at Barcelona, Spain, in July 2010 to put the final touches to the secret plan.

To mask the group, they used front companies with bank accounts in Cayman Islands - a popular island for money launderers - and hired executives who were unaware of the project's ties with Washington. The perfect mask was the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which many nations trust because of its offer of funds for humanitarian aid.

AP cited documents it acquired and interviews with people involved in the project to build an initial subscriber based by offering safe content such as news briefs on sports, music and weather. However, the plan was once the subscriber base grows to a critical mass, it would be easy to insert political content to inspire Cubans to organise mass gatherings within a moment's notice sent as SMS.

Zunzuneo, the Cuban slang word for the tweet of a hummingbird, has so far over 40,000 Cuban subscribers who are unaware of the portal's alleged links with the U.S. government and its plan to undermine the Castro-led Cuban government.

Zunzuneo messages are not encrypted but appear to be sent from different countries to avoid detection by using mirror system in which the company uses the same computer that runs on the same platform and same phones.

USAID spokesman Matt Herrick said that the U.S. Congress reviewed them in 2013 and found the programme it is implementing in Cuba consistent with U.S. laws.

He said, "USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency, and we work all over the world to help people exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms, and give them access to improve their lives and connect with the outside world."

USAID noted that text messaging was used to gather masses for popular uprisings such as in the Philippines and Moldova.

Mr McSpedon, however, has denied that Zunzuneo is a secret U.S. government project.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney also insisted that Zunzuneo is not a covert programme. He said, quoted by The Guardian, "It was a development-assistance programme ... I am not aware of the individuals here in the White House who were involved."

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(Photo: REUTERS / Desmond Boylan)
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2010, before his health reportedly began to rapidly decline.
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