Cuban-American leaders helped 'Cuban Twitter'

2014-04-22 08:35

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Miami - Leaders with the largest non-profit organisation for young Cuban-Americans quietly provided strategic support for the federal government's secret "Cuban Twitter" programme, connecting contractors with potential investors and even serving as paid consultants, The Associated Press has learned.

Interviews and documents obtained by the AP show leaders of the organisation, Roots of Hope, were approached by the "Cuban Twitter" programme's organisers in early 2011 about taking over the text-messaging service, known as ZunZuneo, and discussed how to shift it into private hands.

Few if any investors were willing to privately finance ZunZuneo, and Roots of Hope members dropped the idea. But at least two people on its board of directors went on to work as consultants, even as they served in an organisation that explicitly refused to accept any US government funds and distanced itself from groups that did.

The disclosure could have wide repercussions for what has become one of the most visible and influential Cuban-American organisations.

Roots of Hope has been a key player in events like Latin pop star Juanes' 2009 peace concert that drew more than a million people in Havana and in the promotion of technology on the island. Its leaders recently accompanied Cuban blogger and Castro critic Yoani Sanchez to Washington, where she met with US vice president Joe Biden.


Chris Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, said he wasn't surprised that Roots of Hope's leaders had been approached by US Agency for International Development contractors about the ZunZuneo project, given the large sums of money USAID has available and the limited number of creative, tech-savvy groups that work on Cuba issues.

"I think it does risk tainting the group, a group that I think has done amazing work and changed the discussion and mobilised a new generation toward a much more pragmatic agenda," Sabatini said.

It also comes at a sensitive time: The non-profit is looking to help Sanchez develop a new independent media project in Cuba. Links to the USAID programme could make that prospect more difficult, as the Cuban government views the Twitter-like endeavour as yet another US effort to undermine its communist system. Sanchez herself has also been adamant in not accepting any government funding.

Matt Herrick, a USAID spokesperson, declined to provide the names of any individuals employed by its contractor, but said Roots of Hope did not enter into any grants or contracts related to ZunZuneo or any other project. However, documents obtained by the AP show extensive involvement at times by the organisation's board members.

Asked whether agency contractors had attempted to spin the project off to Roots of Hope leaders, Herrick said only, "The project sought to attract private investment to support the effort after USAID funding ended, but private investment was never identified."

The ZunZuneo project ended in September 2012.

An AP investigation published 3 April revealed that the US government went to great lengths to hide its role in ZunZuneo. The programme, operated by contractor Creative Associates International, used foreign bank transactions and computer networks.

Documents show ZunZuneo organisers aimed to effect democratic change in Cuba and drafted overtly political messages critical of the Castro government, although the Obama administration has maintained the service had a more neutral purpose.
Read more on:    cuba  |  us  |  social networks  |  online privacy

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