"The Cuban government will do everything possible to discredit (blogger) Yoani (Sanchez) and other opposition leaders inside Cuba, using this kind of information," Andy Gomez, a Cuba expert and senior policy adviser with the law firm Poblete Tamargo, said.
USAID and its contractors went to extensive lengths to conceal Washington's ties to the project, according to interviews and documents obtained by the AP. They set up front companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to hide the money trail and recruited CEOs without telling them they would be working on a U.S. taxpayer-funded project.
ZunZuneo was publicly launched shortly after the 2009 arrest in Cuba of American contractor Alan Gross. He was imprisoned after traveling repeatedly to the country on a separate, clandestine USAID mission to expand Internet access using sensitive technology that only governments use.
ZunZuneo's organizers wanted the social network to grow slowly to avoid detection by the Cuban government. Eventually, documents and interviews reveal, they hoped the network would reach critical mass so dissidents could organize "smart mobs" — mass gatherings called at a moment's notice — that could trigger political demonstrations, or "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society."
For more than two years, ZunZuneo grew and reached at least 40,000 subscribers. But documents reveal the team found evidence Cuban officials tried to trace the text messages and break into the ZunZuneo system.
USAID told the AP that ZunZuneo stopped in September 2012 when a government grant ended.
Associated Press researcher Monika Mathur, AP writers Richard Lardner, Donna Cassata and Deb Riechmann in Washington, and Christine Armario, Laura Wides and Suzette Laboy in Florida contributed to this report.
Contact the AP's Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations@ap.org.
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