The US government created a service similar to Twitter in Cuba in a “discreet” operation intended to promote democracy on the communist-ruled island, officials said on Thursday, but denied that the US$1.2 million effort was aimed at fomenting unrest.
The program, whose existence was first reported by the Associated Press, was run by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which normally delivers aid to the world’s poor, and was discontinued in 2012, officials said.
US Department of State spokeswoman Marie Harf said the program was neither “secret” nor “covert” under the US government’s definitions of those terms.
“Discreet does not equal covert,” Harf told a news briefing.
Harf said this “democracy promotion” program created a platform “similar to Twitter” and was carried out under a three-year grant totaling US$1.2 million and was created using subcontractors and foreign banks.
“We did not supply political content. We did not drive the political content,” Harf said, although she added that the initial communications made over the network on subjects like sports and the weather were made by the US-funded contractors.
“So this is solely for the purpose of creating a platform for Cubans to express themselves, which has long been the policy of the United States, the United States Congress, and many other people in this country,” Harf said.
Harf said “the notion that we were somehow trying to foment unrest, that we were trying to advance a specific political agenda or points of view — nothing could be further from the truth.”
Harf declined to say the program “accomplished a lot.”
US Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the US Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was “absolutely not” aware of the program.
“If I had been, I would have said, ‘What in heaven’s name are you thinking?’ This is dumb, dumb, dumb,” he said.
“This is not something that was declared to us. If you’re going to do a covert operation like this for regime change — assuming it ever makes any sense — it’s not something that should be done through USAID. They do a lot of great things around the world,” Leahy told MSNBC.
Harf said that “we submitted a congressional notification in 2008 outlining what we were doing in Cuba” and “we also offered to brief” the appropriate US lawmakers about it.
Asked about Leahy’s comments, Harf said: “I can’t speak to why he knows certain things or doesn’t know certain things.”
Harf said documents involving the contracting companies handling the program were unclassified and that the contractors would not have denied working for the US government if asked.
Harf said “discretion” was needed about the government’s funding of the program “so the Cuban government won’t shut it down, they won’t clamp down on average Cubans trying to talk to one another on this.”
“Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “In implementing programs in non-permissive environments, of course, the government has taken steps to be discreet. That’s how you protect the practitioners and the public. This is not unique to Cuba.”