By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba said on Sunday the United States continues to use social media to "subvert" the island's government and that the revelation this week of a U.S.-created, Twitter-like service for Cuba was just one of several examples.
The U.S. government has admitted it created a social media network called ZunZuneo, which takes its name from Cuban slang for the tweet of a hummingbird. It was revealed in a report by the Associated Press, which said ZunZuneo snared cell phone users to build a network whose goals included mobilizing demonstrations.
The program, built by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) using shell companies to hide U.S. government involvement, went dark in 2012 due to a lack of funds.
U.S. officials confirmed it on Thursday, calling ZunZuneo a "democracy promotion" program that was neither "secret" nor "covert" under the U.S. government's definitions of those terms.
"The surprising denunciations made recently in an investigation by the AP, about the existence for years of a secret project of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to create a supposed Cuban Twitter ... are scarcely the tip of the iceberg of a gigantic subversive campaign against Cuba," the Union of Young Communists' newspaper, Juventud Rebelde, reported on Sunday.
U.S. officials said the programs referred to by Juventud Rebelde had been publicly revealed since their inception and were merely an attempt to promote the free flow of information in a country where the state controls all the media.
The head of USAID, Rajiv Shah, is scheduled to testify before a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday. Though the hearing was previously scheduled to discuss budget matters, Shah may face questioning about ZunZuneo, which Cuba has attempted to turn into a propaganda victory.
One program was created by the U.S. government's Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which broadcasts radio and television signals into Cuba that are mostly jammed by the local authorities. The OCB programs such as TV and Radio Marti are named after the island's independence hero Jose Marti.
The OCB's online project, Martinoticias, aims to get around the jamming by using social media.
Since 2011, Martinoticias (Martinews) has been spamming cellphone users in an attempt to promote its services, the newspaper said.
Office of Cuba Broadcasting Director Carlos Garcia-Perez said his office sent text and email messages to Cubans in attempt to build a social network, but denied the initiative was spamming.
"We don't have anything to hide. We are just trying to create the free flow of information on the island," Garcia-Perez said in a telephone interview. "That strategy is out in the open. ... It's perfectly legal.
"We're not trying to create another revolution," he added.
Cuba has the lowest internet density in the Western Hemisphere, and the government is slowly allowing increased internet access, all the while warning of "enemies" using social media to foster unrest. But there are over 2 million mobile phone users in Cuba, where people actively use text messaging.
Juventud Rebelde also referred to an initiative known as Piramideo, which the Office of Cuba Broadcasting publicly announced upon its inception in June 2013.
It also mentioned Commotion, a three-year project funded by USAID starting in 2012 that was attempting to "seduce" young Cubans by offering music, films, chats and online games, the newspaper said.
The efforts were an attempt to divide Cubans and overthrow the communist government, Juventud Rebelde said.
"There's nothing covert about either of these U.S. government programs. ... USAID's appropriations are public information, and the Congressional Budget Justification describes the government's Cuba programs," USAID spokesman Matthew Herrick said in an email.
Hilda Arias, director of mobile services at the state-run telecommunications monopoly, ETECSA, told Juventud Rebelde that after the revelations concerning ZunZuneo, the company had notified some 200 providers of text messages that it would take action if they continued to send spam.
She said that as of October 2013 the Martinoticias had sent spam messages 219 times, totaling over a million messages, to Cuban consumers without their permission, violating Cuban and U.S. law.
(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Eric Walsh)
(This story corrects eighth paragraph to reflect that OCB is not part of the U.S. State Department)