According to an investigation by the Associated Press news agency, the US secretly created ZunZuneo, a text-message social network designed to foment unrest in Cuba.
ZunZuneo, dubbed a “Cuban Twitter”, had 40,000 subscribers at its height in a country with limited web access.
The project reportedly lasted from 2009-2012 when the grant money ran out.
The US is said to have concealed its links to the network through a series of shell companies and by funneling messages through other countries.
The project appears to have taken advantage of the thirst for information on the island, where there is no independent media.
The scheme was reportedly operated by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), a federal international development organization run under the aegis of the Department of State.
In a statement, USAID said its work was “consistent with US law”.
It told the Associated Press it was “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”.
But the Associated Press report could undermine USAID’s longstanding claims that it does not take covert action in the countries where it operates aid programs.
ZunZuneo, slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet, was reportedly designed to attract a subscriber base with discussion initially about everyday topics such as sport and weather.
US officials then planned to introduce political messages in the hope of spurring the network’s users, especially younger Cubans, into dissent from their communist-run government, the Associated Press reports.
“There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement,” said a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord, one of the project’s creators, obtained by the news agency.
Executives set up firms in Spain and the Cayman Islands to pay the company’s bills and routed the text messages away from US servers.
A website and bogus web advertisements were created to give the impression of a real firm, the Associated Press reports.
As the money dried up, US officials reportedly approached Twitter founder Jack Dorsey for funding.
Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the foreign operations appropriation subcommittee, said the ZunZuneo revelations were troubling.
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