The United States has denied it used its overseas aid agency to mount a covert operation on social media to incite political unrest against Cuba’s communist leaders.
But the US Agency for International Development (USAID) did admit on Thursday to building a Twitter-style application on which Cubans, who face strict curbs on expression, were able to “talk freely among themselves” consistent with universal rights and freedoms.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the program was a “development assistance” scheme targeted at Cubans facing government restrictions on information and had never been a secret.
He said the program, first reported after an investigation by the Associated Press, was debated in Congress and conducted within US law. It was not advertised to protect those who took part.
“When you have a program like that in a non permissive environment, i.e. a place like Cuba, you are discreet (in) how you implement it so you protect the practitioners,” he said.
“But that does not make it covert. USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency. Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong.”
USAID spokesman Matt Herrick said USAID was proud to work in Cuba to “promote human rights and universal freedoms” and to help information flow to its people, alongside its humanitarian operations.
The project was known as “Zunzuneo” after the term for a Cuban hummingbird and was a platform for Cubans to “speak freely among themselves,” said Herrick.
He said the application was built to build interest among Cubans using topics like sports scores, weather, and trivia.
But questions were raised after the AP report suggested that political content was to be introduced at a later stage to encourage Cubans to mount “flash mobs” and demonstrate against the communist government.
Despite the denials, the use of USAID in the program could politicise an agency which often relies on the goodwill of foreign governments to carry out humanitarian work.
The agency says openly on its website that its core mission in Cuba includes promoting the freedom of expression.