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Cuba: U.S. has been using SMS to ‘spam’ Cubans with propaganda

Above: Havana, Cuba

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Looks like our government has been playing “social media serial entrepreneur” in Cuba.

As the Associated Press revealed last week, the U.S. government secretly built a social network called ZunZuneo in Cuba. The microblogging service was created specifically to destabilize the Cuban government and spread information several years ago.

As it turns out, this is not the only instance of our government attempting to create communication networks to spread information to Cuban citizens, according to a report from Reuters.

The U.S. government’s Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) created one program which broadcasts TV and radio signals, but those are mostly blocked by Cuban authorities. The OCB’s online project, Martinoticias (Martinews), attempts to circumvent those blocks by using digital media.

The OCB has allegedly been “spamming” (Cuban official’s term) cell phone users since 2011 in an attempt to promote its services, according to the Union of Young Communists’ newspaper, Juventud Rebelde.

OCB director Carlos Garcia-Perez has responded that his office’s promotion through text messages and emails was an attempt to build the social network, not 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 a phone interview with Reuters.

“That strategy is out in the open. … It’s perfectly legal. We’re not trying to create another revolution.”

The Cuban newspaper also mentioned an initiative known as Piramideo. The OCB publicly announced this program when it was created it in June 2013, as well as Commotion which is a three-year projected started in 2012 and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Commotion was offering music, movies, chats, and online games in an attempt to rope in young Cubans, according to Juventud Rebelde.

The newspaper claims these were meant to create unrest and overthrow the current Communist regime.

“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 to Reuters.

The state-run telecommunications monopoly ETECSA has warned about 200 text message providers that it would take action if they continue to send messages it considers spam, according to Juventud Rebelde.

ETECSA spokesperson Hilda Arias said to the newspaper that as of October 2013, Martinoticias has sent spam 219 times (a total of over a million messages) without consumers’ permission. If true, this is a violation of both Cuban and U.S. law.

Interestingly, the USAID is not an intelligence agency, but one that normally manages foreign aid and economic development, so its initiative in creating these projects are not covert or subversion attempts, as we previously reported.

Most likely, these are attempts to create movements similar to the Arab Spring revolts. But given Cuba’s particular telecommunications restrictions, these programs have had to use roundabout ways to reach Cubans, hence the text messages.