USAID head defends ‘Cuba Twitter’ as ‘critical’


The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said Wednesday that programs such as the controversial “Cuba Twitter” are “critical” in promoting democracy around the world. 

“It’s clear that this program, which is directed and mandated by Congress, and implemented within pretty tight direction, is a part of our portfolio of activities,” Rajiv Shah, USAID administrator, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

{mosads}The Associated Press revealed the messaging program, called ZunZeneo, last week. It ran from 2009 to 2012 and had 40,000 Cuban users at its height, but the users did not know that it was run by the U.S. government.

Among the messages the U.S. sent out to subscribers were some poking fun at the Castro government.

Shah noted that a publicly available Government Accountability Office report in February praised USAID for improving the efficiency of “democracy assistance” in Cuba. The report did not mention the program, but did mention the distribution of pamphlets that promote “democratic values,” and blogging training for Cubans.

While critics say Cuba Twitter was a ham-handed attempt at subversion, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a staunch opponent of the Cuban government, attacked those skeptical of the program Wednesday.

“The real question here is why does the press and some in our congressional family demonize these programs?” she said. 

She asked Shah if the program was covert; he said “no.”

She asked if USAID has similar programs in other countries. “We support the civil society, yes,” he responded.

The White House last week similarly said the program was “discreet,” but not “covert.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has been particularly critical, calling the program “cockamamie,” on Tuesday.

Shah said the program is part of critical efforts to reach out to civil society.

“In countries all around the world, standing up for democratic values, improved governance, ending corruption, open civil society, access to information, is critical to achieving a broad range of goals,” Shah said.

“That said, we’re open to a dialogue here,” he added.

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