U.S. ties to "Cuban Twitter" catches some on Capitol Hill by surprise

The head of a U.S. government agency is scheduled to testify at a congressional hearing Tuesday about a secret Twitter-like communications network that the agency set up in Cuba.

The Associated Press reports the network was designed to spark a political uprising in the communist nation.

Cuba called this part of a "subversive" plan to destabilize the country, but the U.S. State Department said this was just a development program to help the Cuban people. Either way, the hidden social network allowed thousands of Cubans to evade government censors, Margaret Brennan reports.

The revelation that the U.S. created a social network hidden from the Cuban government took the U.S. senator who oversees foreign operations funding by surprise. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, "If I had known, I would have said, 'Are you out of your mind?'"

The program was called "ZunZuneo," and it functioned like a bare-bones Twitter, allowing users in Cuba to exchange information by text message.

At its peak, around 40,000 Cubans used it. They didn't know that it was run by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, normally a humanitarian organization.

It paid contractors to collect Cubans' personal cell phone data and send them text messages. Those texts were meant to inspire dissent that would ultimately bring down the Castro government, according to documents obtained by the AP.

The State Department claimed the content was innocent - solely weather and sports updates.

State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said, "We did not supply political content. We did not drive the political content. We just - our sole purpose here - was to open the space so they could supply their own political content or talk about anything else they wanted."

Funding for the program - just more than a million dollars - was routed through overseas bank accounts and front companies in order to keep it under the radar.

The State Department said the program is legal and that Congress was notified.

But Leahy said he was not - and called the program dangerously misguided. He said, "We've had every administration since Dwight Eisenhower who think 'We just try one more thing, we'll get rid of those Castros.' Hasn't worked for 60 years. It won't work."

ZunZuneo didn't work and was halted in 2012. But the U.S. government funds other USAID programs to promote democracy in Cuba. In fact, one of them led to the arrest of USAID contractor Alan Gross. The 64-year-old American is in ill health and serving a 15-year sentence in a Cuban jail.

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