On Thursday, April 3, the Associated Press published an article on a social media program in Cuba funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The article contained significant inaccuracies and false conclusions about ZunZuneo, which was part of a broader effort that began in 2009 to facilitate “twitter like” communication among Cubans so they could connect with each other on topics of their choice. Many of the inaccuracies have been re-reported by other news outlets, perpetuating the original narrative, or worse.

Photo credit: Manpreet Romana/AFP

Photo credit: Manpreet Romana/AFP

The article suggested that USAID spent years on a “covert” program to gather personal information to be used for political purposes to “foment” “smart mobs” and start a “Cuban spring” to overthrow the Cuban government.  It makes for an interesting read, but it’s not true.

USAID’s work in Cuba is not unlike what we and other donors do around the world to connect people who have been cut off from the outside world by repressive or authoritarian governments. USAID’s democracy and governance work focuses on strengthening civil society, governance, and promoting human rights.

Here are eight claims made by article, followed by the facts:

1) The story says the “program’s legality is unclear” and implies the program was “covert.”

FACT:  USAID works in places where we are not always welcome. To minimize the risk to our staff and partners and ensure our work can proceed safely, we must take certain precautions and maintain a discreet profile. But discreet does not equal covert.

The programs have long been the subject of Congressional notifications, unclassified briefings, public budget requests, and public hearings. All of the Congressional Budget Justifications published from 2008 through 2013, which are public and online, explicitly state that a key goal of USAID’s Cuba program is to break the “information blockade” or promote “information sharing” amongst Cubans and that assistance will include the use or promotion of new “technologies” and/or “new media” to achieve its goals.

In 2012, the Government Accountability Office—the U.S. government’s investigative arm—spent months looking at every aspect of USAID’s Cuba programs. GAO’s team of analysts had unrestricted access to project documents, extended telephone conversations with Mobile Accord (ZunZuneo) and even traveled to Cuba. The GAO identified no concerns in the report about the legality of USAID’s programs, including ZunZuneo, and offered USAID zero recommendations for improvements.

2) The article implies that the purpose of the program was to foment “Smart Mobs,” funnel political content and thereby trigger unrest in Cuba.

FACT:  The “USAID documents” cited in the article appear to be case study research and brainstorming notes between the grantee and the contractor.  The specific reference to “Smart Mobs” had nothing to do with Cuba nor ZunZuneo. The documents do not represent the U.S. government’s position or reflect the spirit or actions taken as part of the program in Cuba.  The project initially sent news, sports scores, weather, and trivia.  After which, the grantee did not direct content because users were generating it on their own.

3) The story states there was a “shell company” in Spain formed to run the program.

FACT:  No one affiliated with the ZunZuneo program established a private company in Spain as part of this program.  The project sought to do so if it was able to attract private investors to support the effort after USAID funding ended.  Private investment was never identified and thus no company was ever formed.

4) The story implies that the USG tried to recruit executives to run ZunZuneo without telling them about USG involvement.

FACT:  A USAID staff member was present during several of the interviews for candidates to lead ZunZuneo.  The staff member’s affiliation with USAID was disclosed and it was conveyed that the funding for the program was from the U.S. Government.

5) The article states that private data was collected with the hope it would be used for political purposes.

FACT: The ZunZuneo project included a website, as is typical for a social network.  Users could voluntarily submit personal information. Few did, and the program did not use this information for anything.

6) The article says that the funding was “publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan,” implying that funds were misappropriated.

FACT: All funds for this project were Congressionally appropriated for democracy programs in Cuba, and that information is publicly available.

7) The story stated, “At its peak, the project drew in more than 40,000 Cubans to share news and exchange opinions.”

FACT: At its peak, the platform had around 68,000 users.

8) The article suggests there was an inappropriate base of operations established in Costa Rica outside of normal U.S. government procedures.

FACT: The Government of Costa Rica was informed of the program on more than one occasion.  The USAID employee overseeing the program served under Chief of Mission Authority with the U.S. Embassy, as is standard practice.

We welcome tough journalism – and we embrace it.  It makes our programs better.  But we also believe it’s important that the good work of USAID not be falsely characterized.