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'Cuban Twitter' a new hurdle for bloggers, exiles working to increase access to technology

By Christine Armario

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, April 5 2014 5:37 p.m. MDT

Students gather behind a business looking for a Internet signal for their smart phones in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. The U.S. Agency for International Development masterminded the creation of a "Cuban Twitter," a communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba.

Ramon Espinosa, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

MIAMI — The revelation that a U.S. government-funded program set up a cellphone-based social network in Cuba is likely to pose new challenges for independent bloggers and exile groups that work to increase access to technology.

Yoani Sanchez, the island's most prominent dissident, began her activism with a blog and now has nearly 600,000 followers on Twitter. She also is on the verge of starting a digital news project.

In recent years, exile groups in Miami have tried to help Cubans break through the technology divide by sending computers, laptops and flash drives to store and share information.

Sanchez and others have gone to pains to say they are not supported by the U.S. government. Yet even without any connection, analysts say findings by The Associated Press that the U.S. Agency for International Development oversaw the financing and creation of a mobile phone network used by more than 40,000 people could be damaging.

"It's going to be much more difficult for Yoani Sanchez to do the things she wanted to do," said Andy Gomez, a retired Cuba scholar from the University of Miami and senior policy adviser with the law firm Poblete Tamargo. "I think the Cuban government is going to say, 'You see, this is probably funded by some of the U.S. AID funding.'"

Strategy documents obtained by the AP show Sanchez was named among marquee personalities whom organizers said could broadcast her "Twitter microblog through the ZunZuneo SMS platform."

The network was called ZunZuneo, which is slang for a Cuban hummingbird's tweet.

It was not immediately clear if the project's leaders reached out to Sanchez for collaboration.

The renewed skepticism of dissidents and exiles on the island was already apparent in Cuba's official media Friday. The state news agency Prensa Latina recalled a Jan. 1 speech in which President Raul Castro warned of "attempts to subtly introduce platforms for neoliberal thought and for the restoration of neocolonial capitalism."

"Castro's denunciations of the U.S. government's destabilizing attempts against Cuba were corroborated by today's revelation of a plan to push Cuban youth toward the counterrevolution, with the participation of a U.S. agency," Prensa Latina said.

Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College who helped organize part of Sanchez's tour to the United States last year, said he felt Sanchez would not be affected in the long term.

"In the short-term, however, it will complicate her project," he said.

U.S. officials have defended the program, a "Cuban Twitter" that operated from 2010 until 2012.

The AP investigation found the U.S. government set up the network to undermine the island's communist government. Tens of thousands of Cubans signed up for the service. The network allowed users to send and receive text messages, mostly news, sports and entertainment clips.

U.S. officials say that the program was in line with the U.S. Agency for International Development's mission, that the Obama administration had offered to discuss funding for the program with several congressional committees, and that it wasn't a covert operation requiring White House approval.

Users of the network, however, did not know it was created by the U.S. government.

The findings come the same week Sanchez told an audience in Miami that she plans to launch her digital news network this month, using email, texts, and flash drives to spread the work of independent journalists.

She has not commented publicly on the ZunZuneo network.

Henken and others, however, voiced concern about the fallout for her.

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