WASHINGTON (CBSMiami) – The head of U.S. Agency for International Development fielded questions Tuesday on Capitol Hill from lawmakers about his agency’s bid to set up a “Cuban Twitter” to stir unrest.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. was the first to question Rajiv Shah. He called the social media program “dumb, dumb, dumb.”
Lawmakers want to know if the program endangered it users by hiding that a U.S. government agency was behind it.
On the streets of Havana, people still talk about Zunzuneo, a social media network named after the sound made by a hummingbird.
Zunzuneo was supposed to be a Cuban Twitter and had thousands of users including Ernesto Guerra.
“You would log on and write 140 characters,” Guerra said. “It was free of charge.”
What Guerra didn’t know, is that Zunzuneo was actually a product of the U.S. government. It was a plan designed to undermine the Communist government of Raul and Fidel Castro. An Associated Press investigation found the funding came from the USAID. which distributes U.S. aid around the world.
Frank Mora, a professor at Florida International University, said USAID’s role can go beyond humanitarian aid.
“It should not be a surprise that the U.S. government and USAID are helping dissidents with tools to communicate better on the island,” said Frank Mora, director of FIU’s Latin American and Caribbean Center.
USAID said in a statement that it is “proud of its work in Cuba to provide basic humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and fundamental freedoms and to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people.” The White House says everything was above board.
“Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong,” White House Spokesman Jay Carney said. “Congress funds democracy programming for Cuba to help empower Cubans to access more information and strengthen civil society.”
Zunzuneo came to life when USAID obtained half a million cell phone numbers in Cuba, and started sending texts about weather, sporting events and music. Messages critical of the government were never sent. The funding for Zunzuneo dried up and the sounds of hummingbirds on Cuban cell phones went silent.