A Cuban Twitter clone that once counted tens of thousands of users on the small Communist island was actually a U.S. plot to manufacture dissent there, according to an Associated Press report.
Cuba’s version of Twitter, known as ZunZuneo, was launched secretly in 2009 by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which went through elaborate lengths to hide the service’s true origins, according to the AP.
At one point, the U.S. even tried to recruit Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey to help the effort, according to the report. Dorsey declined to comment for the story.
ZunZuneo cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $1.6 million and was founded through a network of shell corporations to mask U.S. involvement, according to the AP, which said it was unclear if the project was even legal.
USAID is a federal agency that has worked around the world for 50 years to fight poverty and help democracies. The clandestine Twitter-style program is reminiscent of Cold War intrigue and efforts since the Kennedy administration to disrupt Cuba, the Communist neighbor off the coast of Florida.
The U.S. still enforces a 54-year economic embargo on Cuba. Dissidents around the world have embraced Twitter in mass movements against authoritarianism, including during the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in 2010. Twitter recently has been a source of unrest in Turkey, where the government has tried to block people there from using it.
The U.S. hoped ZunZuneo could perform a similar role in Cuba, reaching a “critical mass” and facilitating widespread protest to realign the balance of power in the country, the AP reported. ZunZuneo is the sound Cuban’s use to describe the chirp of a hummingbird.
ZunZuneo’s organizers tried to hide the U.S. government’s involvement in order to avoid detection of Cuba’s leadership run by Fidel Castro’s brother Raul Castro. Organizers also wanted to keep the origins secret to maintain the service’s credibility with the Cuban people, according to the AP.
The project even used “mock ad banners” to make the business seem more authentic, the report said.
"It was such a marvelous thing," Ernesto Guerra, a Cuban user who didn’t know ZunZuneo was backed by the U.S., told the AP in Havana. "How was I supposed to realize that? It's not like there was a sign saying, 'Welcome to ZunZuneo, brought to you by USAID.'"
The messaging service reached about 40,000 members before shutting down in 2012.
Likely presidential contender Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the ZunZuneo project, was quoted by the AP in a speech in 2011 in which she said the U.S. helps people in "oppressive Internet environments get around filters."