DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Dumb, dumb, dumb. That's a quote. It's what Democratic senator Patrick Leahy is calling a social media program the U.S. government operated in Cuba for two years, ending in 2012. The Associated Press last week reported that the U.S. Agency for International Development, which funds humanitarian and development projects, created a text messaging service called ZunZuneo meant to give Cubans a platform for political dissent.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The name is Cuban slang for a hummingbird's tweet. The 68,000 Cubans who used ZunZuneo had no way of knowing the U.S. was paying for it. USAID denies there was anything improper about ZunZuneo and the head of USAID answers questions today before a Senate panel chaired by Patrick Leahy.
GREENE: The White House has also been on defense, saying it was all above board. Here's press secretary Jay Carney.
JAY CARNEY: Suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong. Congress funds democracy programming for Cuba to help empower Cubans to access more information and to strengthen civil society. These appropriations are public, unlike covert action. The money invested has been debated in Congress .
GREENE: OK, so is ZunZuneo an effort to promote free speech in a repressive country? Or a covert program meant to destabilize the Cuban government - or is it both?
For one point of view, we turned to Julia Sweig. She's a senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who's been a frequent visitor to Cuba and has been openly critical of U.S. policy there.
Julia Sweig, thanks so much for coming on the program. We appreciate your time.
JULIA SWEIG: I'm happy to be here, David.
GREENE: So give us thumbnail, if you can. What exactly was this program?
SWEIG: This program created an app that was sent in a big blast to Cuban cell phone users that allowed them to communicate with one another for free. It's been called a Twitter-type platform but manufactured by companies who were contracted by USAID.
GREENE: So someone in Cuba using this would not have realized that it was connected to the U.S. government. They might have been using it to, you know, chat with friends - do other stuff.
SWEIG: That's absolutely true. The program was designed actually to conceal the fact that it was developed by the U.S. government.
GREENE: Well, how exactly was the U.S. government trying to use this program?
SWEIG: In this particular case, the idea is that social media has the possibility of bringing about political change. And this attempt was to measure and seize upon dissatisfaction by young people in Cuba with their government, and to gradually encourage them with content and other sorts of messaging, to create pools of dissidents and opposition activity.
What's funny about this is that in order to get this program up and running and to sustain it, the front companies actually paid the Cuban government-owned telephone company revenue for providing the connectivity that was necessary, in order for this quasi-Twitter app to function. So on the one hand, the Obama administration is working very hard to enforce economic sanctions. On the other hand, through this essentially covert program, is actually giving money to the Cuban government.
GREENE: Well, let me ask you this, Julia Sweig: Could a program like this backfire? I mean there are some who are suggesting that people who are in countries around the world, who are genuinely trying to organize protests using social media in difficult environments, this now gives a leader the right to say: Look, I'm going to shut down social media because this might be if foreign government trying to infiltrate.
SWEIG: Well, it certainly does have that potential. We saw that in Iran over the last few years. But the truth is, David, on the Cuba front, I think that this is not going to cause the Cuban government to shut down the use of social media or to stop its strategy of trying to expand the Internet digitally. Because I think the broader economic imperative is that Cuba needs and Cubans need to have these tools.
So I do think it's going to just sharpening attitudes inside of the Cuban government, where it would be better for the future if the two countries could deal with one another with a slightly more positive view. This will die down however, in my view.
GREENE: Julia Sweig is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Julia, thanks so much for your time.
SWEIG: Thanks very much for having me, David.
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