World and Nation

U.S. tried to build a social media site in Cuba, failed

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration acknowledged Thursday that it had attempted, and failed, to build a Twitter-like social media site in Cuba but insisted that it was part of the Agency for International Development’s effort to encourage political discussions, not a covert program to overthrow the government.

Arguments over the purpose of the program, called ZunZuneo, arose after The Associated Press published a detailed article about it Thursday, based in part on documents from a contractor for the development agency.

One memo said, “There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement.”

The program ran from 2008 to 2012, when it abruptly ended, apparently because a $1.3 million agency contract to start up a text-messaging system ran out of money.

At the time, about 40,000 Cubans were using ZunZuneo, which The AP noted was “slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet.”

“No business was able to take this idea and utilize it effectively,” said Matt Herrick, the agency’s spokesman. “So the project ended.”

He added that “no private data was collected, and no demographic data.”

At first glance, the program seemed to be in the spirit of many failed efforts by the U.S. government, dating to the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, to destabilize the Cuban government.

The idea was to start the system with innocuous messaging, like soccer scores and weather forecasts. The State Department said that the hope was that over time it would promote democracy.

By the standards of American efforts in Cuba, ZunZuneo was on the milder side. It did not involve poison cigars for Fidel Castro, or landings by exiles at the Bay of Pigs. It was similarly unsuccessful — having no apparent effect on the Cuban government.

“It was just dumb,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who has long argued for lifting the Cuban trade embargo, told MSNBC on Thursday.

He argued that if U.S. companies were allowed to operate on the island, Twitter would become widely used, even if the Cuban government tried to block it. (A recent effort to ban Twitter in Turkey has been both evaded and mocked.)

The State Department said the ZunZuneo effort was part of broader programs to use the Internet and cellphones.

But Marie Harf, the deputy spokeswoman at the State Department, said critics who equated ZunZuneo with a covert program did not understand covert programs.

James Lewis, a cyberexpert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, described the program as “amateur-hour covertness, which is to say that it wasn’t very covert.”

The State Department has long viewed text messaging as a potential instrument of so-called street diplomacy, especially after it was widely used in Iran in 2009 to organize protests against the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president.