US confirms it made 'Cuban Twitter'

White House press secretary Jay Carney: "It is neither covert nor an intelligence programme"

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The White House has confirmed that a US government aid agency was behind a text-message service that was allegedly designed to foment unrest in Cuba.

ZunZuneo, dubbed a "Cuban Twitter", had 40,000 subscribers at its height in a country with limited web access, reports the Associated Press.

The project is said to have lasted from 2009-12 when the grant money ran out.

The US reportedly hid its links to the network through shell firms and by routing messages via other countries.

There has been no official Cuban government reaction to the story.

'Bogus advertisements'

The BBC's Sarah Rainsford in the Cuban capital of Havana says there is a thirst for information on the island, which has no independent media.

Analysis

The ZunZuneo project seems to have focused on phone messages because internet activity is so limited in Cuba. Cubans were only permitted to own mobile phones in 2008, but now they are very common.

Since last year, 137 public internet access points have been opened - for the whole island. But one hour online costs $4.50 (£2.70) - or almost a quarter of an average monthly state salary. Getting online in a hotel is now possible for Cubans, but prices there are even higher. Last month, the government began allowing email via telephone.

In this void - telephone messaging has emerged as a common form of organisation for Cuba's small dissident community - who send photos and post to Twitter via their mobile phones. But most Cubans who do go online are generally more interested in using sites such as Facebook or email to contact family and friends now living abroad.

The scheme, first reported by the Associated Press news agency, was operated by the US Agency for International Development (USAID)

It is a federal international development organisation run under the aegis of the Department of State.

At a daily news briefing on Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the project had been debated by Congress and passed oversight controls.

He said: "These are the kinds of environments where a programme like this and its association with the US government can create problems for practitioners and members of the public.

"So appropriate discretion is engaged in for that reason but not because it's covert, not because it's an intelligence programme, because it is neither covert nor an intelligence programme."

USAID spokesman Matt Herrick told the BBC the agency was proud of its efforts in Cuba and that it worked to help people everywhere to exercise their rights and connect them with the outside world.

However, the report could undermine USAID's longstanding claim that it does not take covert action in the countries where it operates aid programmes.

ZunZuneo, slang for a Cuban hummingbird's tweet, was reportedly designed to attract a subscriber base with discussion initially about everyday topics such as sport and weather.

Students gather behind a business looking for a Internet signal for their smart phones in Havana, Cuba, 1 April 2014 Cubans were only permitted to own mobile phones in 2008, but the devices are now very common

US officials then planned to introduce political messages to spur the network's users into dissent from their communist-run government, the Associated Press reports.

Executives set up firms in Spain and the Cayman Islands to pay the company's bills and funneled the text messages away from US servers.

A website and bogus web advertisements were reportedly created to give the impression of a real firm.

Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the foreign operations appropriations subcommittee, said the revelations were troubling.

One former subscriber, Javiel, told the BBC in Havana that ZunZuneo sent him free sports news by text.

He said he had no idea the service was funded by the US and never received anything remotely political.

Javiel said that at some point over a year ago the messages stopped.

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