Anti-government action not goal of 'Cuban Twitter'

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The social network set up as a form of Twitter in Cuba was not designed to foment dissent against Havana's communist government, the head of the US agency behind it said on Tuesday.

Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development, appeared before a Senate subcommittee to discuss the agency's US$20 billion (S$25 billion) budget but some of the questioning focused on the social network ZunZuneo that USAID launched in Cuba in 2010.

Last week, a lengthy report by the Associated Press said ZunZuneo, which took its name from Cuban slang for a hummingbird's tweet and was similar to the US-based Twitter network, had been set up as a tool for mobilising demonstrations in Cuba.

Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, called ZunZuneo a "cockamamie idea" that endangered Alan Gross, 64, an American who is serving a 15-year sentence in Cuba after being arrested in 2009 while working for USAID there.

The AP said the USAID plan called for ZunZuneo to start with non-controversial discussion topics such as sports, music and weather and that its operators would introduce politics once the network had established a sizeable following. They hoped eventually to use it to "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society," according to a USAID document cited by the AP.

Shah said ZunZuneo was not intended to disrupt the Cuban government and was in line with USAID policy to improve communications in the country, including through Internet usage, and was similar to programs it had in other parts of the world.

Planning for ZunZuneo began before Shah joined USAID in early 2010 and he told Leahy he did not know who came up with the original idea for it. The network had about 68,000 users when it was shut down in 2012.

ZunZuneo was a "discreet" operation, not a covert one, Shah told the Senate State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee.

"We did not advertise that that platform was supported by the US government," he said, adding that the social network was not done through shell corporations to mask US involvement, as the AP had reported.

He said the AP story had several other inaccuracies, which the USAID had chronicled on its website. Leahy asked Shah if anyone considered what would happen to Gross if the Cuban government discovered US involvement in ZunZuneo and said it would have put him at risk, as well as USAID workers around the world, who could be perceived as spies.

Gross was arrested in Cuba in December 2009 while trying to establish an online network for Jews in Havana. He is now serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba and on Tuesday, his lawyer said Gross had started a hunger strike a week ago to protest his treatment by the U.S. and Cuban governments.

"As far as I can tell, the USAID and the Obama administration have all but forgotten about him," Leahy said.

Shah said he had worked personally on Gross' behalf but that State Department officials had primary responsibility for winning Gross' freedom.

"I think about Alan every day," Shah said. "... State Department takes the lead in these types of issues and they are highly sensitive and I would defer to them to be able to explain to you in the appropriate private setting what's taken place."

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