Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Cuban-American leaders helped 'Cuban Twitter'

Posted on Tuesday, 04.22.14

Cuban-American leaders helped 'Cuban Twitter'

MIAMI -- Leaders with the largest nonprofit organization for young
Cuban-Americans quietly provided strategic support for the federal
government's secret "Cuban Twitter" program, connecting contractors with
potential investors and even serving as paid consultants, The Associated
Press has learned.

Interviews and documents obtained by the AP show leaders of the
organization, Roots of Hope, were approached by the "Cuban Twitter"
program's organizers in early 2011 about taking over the text-messaging
service, known as ZunZuneo, and discussed how to shift it into private
hands. Few if any investors were willing to privately finance ZunZuneo,
and Roots of Hope members dropped the idea. But at least two people on
its board of directors went on to work as consultants, even as they
served in an organization that explicitly refused to accept any U.S.
government funds and distanced itself from groups that did.

The disclosure could have wide repercussions for what has become one of
the most visible and influential Cuban-American organizations. Roots of
Hope has been a key player in events like Latin pop star Juanes' 2009
peace concert that drew more than a million people in Havana and in the
promotion of technology on the island. Its leaders recently accompanied
Cuban blogger and Castro critic Yoani Sanchez to Washington, where she
met with Vice President Joe Biden.

Chris Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and
Council of the Americas, said he wasn't surprised that Roots of Hope's
leaders had been approached by U.S. Agency for International Development
contractors about the ZunZuneo project, given the large sums of money
USAID has available and the limited number of creative, tech-savvy
groups that work on Cuba issues.

"I think it does risk tainting the group, a group that I think has done
amazing work and changed the discussion and mobilized a new generation
toward a much more pragmatic agenda," Sabatini said.

It also comes at a sensitive time; the nonprofit is looking to help
Sanchez develop a new independent media project in Cuba. Links to the
USAID program could make that prospect more difficult, as the Cuban
government views the Twitter-like endeavor as yet another U.S. effort to
undermine its communist system. Sanchez herself has also been adamant in
not accepting any government funding.

Matt Herrick, a USAID spokesman, declined to provide the names of any
individuals employed by its contractor, but said Roots of Hope did not
enter into any grants or contracts related to ZunZuneo or any other
project. However, documents obtained by the AP show extensive
involvement at times by the organization's board members.

Asked whether agency contractors had attempted to spin the project off
to Roots of Hope leaders, Herrick said only, "The project sought to
attract private investment to support the effort after USAID funding
ended, but private investment was never identified." The ZunZuneo
project ended in September 2012.

An AP investigation published April 3 revealed that the U.S. government
went to great lengths to hide its role in ZunZuneo. The program,
operated by contractor Creative Associates International, used foreign
bank transactions and computer networks. Documents show ZunZuneo
organizers aimed to effect democratic change in Cuba and drafted overtly
political messages critical of the Castro government, although the Obama
administration has maintained the service had a more neutral purpose.

Since the AP's investigation, a Senate panel has asked USAID to turn
over all records about ZunZuneo as part of a broader review of the
agency's civil-society efforts worldwide. In congressional hearings
earlier this month, lawmakers debated whether USAID — best known for its
humanitarian mission — should be running such a cloak-and-dagger
operation instead of spy agencies like the CIA.

Roots of Hope was launched at a conference at Harvard University in 2003
by a group of Cuban-American college students seeking to connect with
and empower youth on the island. The organization quickly established a
network of more than 4,000 students and young professionals at top
colleges around the nation.

In 2009, the group focused on promoting access to technology in Cuba
with an initiative to collect and send cellphones and later USB flash
drives. Cuba has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the
world, though cellphone use has become increasingly common.

In each of its projects, Roots of Hope publicly steered away from other
Miami-based exile groups known for their association with USAID funding
— part of a larger strategy to drive change on the island through
non-overtly political means.

Nevertheless, in 2011 Creative Associates officer Xavier Utset
approached Roots of Hope co-founder and then-executive director Felice
Gorordo, whom he knew through their mutual interest in Cuba, about
spinning off the ZunZuneo project.

In an interview with the AP, Gorordo confirmed he'd been asked to help
identify donors but did not know there was an agenda behind the program.

"Personally I thought it had merit. It wasn't political. It had the goal
of promoting shared information," Gorordo said. "But it was not viable
because it was a government project, and we do not accept U.S.
government funding."

Documents and interviews show Gorordo discussed and helped arrange
meetings between the contractors and potential private investors. By
early spring 2011 the talks fizzled as it was clear there would be no

Meanwhile, two other active Roots of Hope members, Chris Gueits and Raul
Moas, began working for Mobile Accord, another project contractor. Moas,
a licensed CPA, was a Roots of Hope volunteer who joined the board of
directors in August 2011. Gueits was also on the organization's board of
directors that year.

For a period of about three months, Moas was significantly involved in
the now-defunct ZunZuneo program, including reviewing some of the
project's test text messages to those on the island and approaching
potential investors, according to the documents. Moas and Roots of Hope
declined to comment. Gueits did not respond to multiple requests for
comment but did list his work for Mobile Accord on two professional
networking sites. Telephone and email messages to Creative Associates
and Mobile Accord were not returned.

One internal project memo describes a trip Moas and Gueits made to
Denver to train with a Mobile Accord staffer on the ZunZuneo platform.

"Raul has been a fantastic addition to the team," another memo on the
trip states, adding that while one Mobile Accord employee was out, "Raul
took the reins and implemented the plan that the three of them put
together." An entry from July of that year describes discussions with
Moas about ZunZuneo test messages.

Several emails copied to Moas and representatives from Creative
Associates, USAID and Mobile Accord mention problems with the program's
website and messaging systems. Another also mentioned Moas' salary for
the month of July.

U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, a South Florida Democrat who has supported Roots'
work, said he does not believe the connection will damage the group in
the long term.

"You are asking for purity for people who are just trying to help Cuban
civil society in a place where freedom of speech and other freedoms do
not exist," he said. "Using a Twitter feed or a messaging system that
allows Cubans to communicate with each other is a good thing, no matter
who pays for it."

Follow on Twitter: Christine Armario at http://www.twitter.com/cearmario
, Laura Wides Munoz at http://www.twitter.com/lwmunoz

Source: MIAMI: Cuban-American leaders helped 'Cuban Twitter' -
Technology - MiamiHerald.com -

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