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ZunZuneo’s organizers wanted the social network to grow slowly to avoid detection by the Cuban government. Eventually, documents and interviews reveal, they hoped the network would reach critical mass so that dissidents could organize "smart mobs" — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice — that could trigger political demonstrations, or "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society."
The Cuban government has a tight grip on information, and the country’s leaders view the Internet as a "wild colt" that "should be tamed." ZunZuneo’s leaders planned to push Cuba "out of a stalemate through tactical and temporary initiatives, and get the transition process going again toward democratic change."
At a 2011 speech at George Washington University, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. helps people in "oppressive Internet environments get around filters." Noting Tunisia’s role in the Arab Spring, she said people used technology to help "fuel a movement that led to revolutionary change."
Suzanne Hall, then a State Department official working on Clinton’s social media efforts, helped spearhead an attempt to get Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to take over the ZunZuneo project. Dorsey declined to comment.
The estimated $1.6 million spent on ZunZuneo was publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan, public government data show, but those documents don’t reveal where the funds were actually spent.
ZunZuneo’s organizers worked hard to create a network that looked like a legitimate business, including the creation of a companion website — and marketing campaign — so users could subscribe and send their own text messages to groups of their choice.
"Mock ad banners will give it the appearance of a commercial enterprise," one written proposal obtained by the AP said. Behind the scenes, ZunZuneo’s computers were also storing and analyzing subscribers’ messages and other demographic information, including gender, age, "receptiveness" and "political tendencies." USAID believed the demographics on dissent could help it target its other Cuba programs and "maximize our possibilities to extend our reach.".
"It was such a marvelous thing," said Ernesto Guerra, a Cuban user who never suspected his beloved network had ties to Washington.
"How was I supposed to realize that?" Guerra asked in an interview in Havana. "It’s not like there was a sign saying, ‘Welcome to ZunZuneo, brought to you by USAID.’"
Executives set up a corporation in Spain and an operating company in the Cayman Islands — a well-known British offshore tax haven — to pay the company’s bills so the "money trail will not trace back to America," a strategy memo said. That would have been a catastrophic blow, they concluded, because it would undermine the service’s credibility with subscribers and get shut down by the Cuban government.
Similarly, subscribers’ messages were funneled through two other countries — but never through American-based computer servers.
Denver-based Mobile Accord considered at least a dozen candidates to head the European front company. One candidate, Francoise de Valera, told the AP she was told nothing about Cuba or U.S. involvement.
James Eberhard, Mobile Accord’s CEO and a key player in the project’s development, declined to comment. Creative Associates referred questions to USAID.
For more than two years, ZunZuneo grew and reached at least 40,000 subscribers. But documents reveal the team found evidence Cuban officials tried to trace the text messages and break into the ZunZuneo system. USAID told the AP that ZunZuneo stopped in September 2012 when a government grant ended.
ZunZuneo vanished abruptly in 2012, and the Communist Party remains in power — with no Cuban Spring on the horizon.
"The moment when ZunZuneo disappeared, (it) was like a vacuum," said Guerra, the ZunZuneo user. "In the end, we never learned what happened. We never learned where it came from."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press researcher Monika Mathur and AP writers Lara Jakes and Deb Riechmann in Washington, and AP writers Andrea Rodriguez and Peter Orsi in Havana. Arce reported from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Contact the AP’s Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations(at)ap.org. Follow on Twitter: Butler at http://twitter.com/desmondbutler; Gillum at http://twitter.com/jackgillum; Arce at http://twitter.com/alberarce.
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