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U.S. defends Twitter-like Cuba mission

| Friday, April 4, 2014, 6:40 p.m.
In this March 11, 2014 photo, a woman uses her cellphone as she sits on the Malecon in Havana, Cuba. The U.S. Agency for International Development masterminded the creation of a 'Cuban Twitter,' a communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba, built with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks, The Associated Press has learned. The project, which lasted more than two years and drew tens of thousands of subscribers, sought to evade Cuba’s stranglehold on the Internet with a primitive social media platform. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

HAVANA — Revelations of a U.S. government program to set up a cellphone-based social network in Cuba are being condemned in the island's official media as proof of Havana's allegations that Washington is waging a “cyber-war” to try to stir up unrest.

The findings of an Associated Press investigation, published on Thursday, featured prominently on multiple Cuban state TV newscasts and occupied a full page in Communist Party newspaper Granma on Friday.

State news agency Prensa Latina recalled a Jan. 1 speech in which President Raul Castro warned of “attempts to subtly introduce platforms for neoliberal thought and for the restoration of neocolonial capitalism.”

“Castro's denunciations of the U.S. government's destabilizing attempts against Cuba were corroborated by today's revelation of a plan to push Cuban youth toward the counterrevolution, with the participation of a U.S. agency,” Prensa Latina said.

U.S. officials defended the program as being in line with the mission of the Agency for International Development, which oversaw it.

They said it did not amount to a “covert” operation, although they said the government takes steps to maintain discretion when working in “non-permissive environments” such as Cuba.

The network — dubbed ZunZuneo, or hummingbird — operated from 2009 until it vanished in 2012. The network, built using secret shell companies and financed through a foreign bank, sought to first build an audience of mostly young people and then nudge them toward dissent.

As many as 40,000 island cellphone users signed up and used ZunZuneo to receive and send text messages, mostly innocuous jokes or snippets of news.

“ZunZuneo joins an extensive list of secret anti-Cuban operations,” including the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, Prensa Latina said.

In a statement late Thursday, Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. affairs at Cuba's Foreign Ministry, demanded that Washington halt “its illegal and clandestine actions against Cuba.” She said the ZunZuneo case “shows once again that the United States government has not renounced its plans of subversion against Cuba.”

Cuba has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the world, though the country has taken small steps to expand access. Last year it opened about 200 cyber-cafes around the country, though at $4.50 an hour, many Cubans are effectively priced out. The government controls nearly all traditional media.

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