Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development testifies before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee April 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee—Getty Images
By Laura Stampler and Maya Rhodan
April 8, 2014

The administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development pushed back against reports it created a “Cuban Twitter” to foment revolution in the Communist country at a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, which controls USAID spending, told USAID administrator Rajiv Shah that launching the social network in Cuba had been a “cockamamie idea.”

A recent report by the Associated Press described ZunZuneo, which is slang in Cuba for a hummingbird’s tweet, as a social network designed to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society” and incite a “Cuban spring.”

Leahy said the work USAID did in Cuba knowingly put government contractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned on the island for four years, in direct danger. He voiced concerns that the project’s discovery will put other USAID workers around the globe at risk.

But Shah, who took the helm in 2009, denied the program’s purpose extended beyond improving communication networks within the country. “Working to improve platforms of communication is a core part of what USAID works to do,” Shah said. “It’s inaccurate that [the program] goes beyond that.”

The government agency had published a blog post ahead of Shah’s testimony, saying that the AP’s story “makes for an interesting read, but it’s not true.” The article went on to rebut eight of the AP’s claims, denying there was any attempt to trigger unrest and saying ZunZuneo was merely an attempt to overcome the “information blockade” in Cuba.

Shah claimed he did not know whose idea it had been to set up the program.

 

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