The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) vehemently denied Tuesday that a Twitter-like network it built in Cuba was a covert op, as draft messages purportedly from the program detailed overtly political barbs at the Castro brothers.
The Associated Press published microblogs intended for the program that seemingly poke fun at Cuba’s leaders, appearing to undermine earlier claims that no U.S.-generated political content was involved and that the social media platform was never intended to stir unrest on the island.
Disclosure of the messages came as USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah told Congress during sometimes confrontational testimony that his agency's program was "absolutely not" covert and was simply meant to increase the flow of information.
An AP investigation last week found that the program, known as ZunZuneo, evaded Cuba's Internet restrictions by creating a text-messaging service that could be used to organize political demonstrations. It drew tens of thousands of subscribers who were unaware it was backed by the U.S. government.
At an oversight hearing Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont told Shah that the program was "cockamamie" and not adequately described to Congress.
USAID, known worldwide for its humanitarian work, has repeatedly maintained it did not send out political messages under the project. Leahy asked Shah whether the project's goal was to "influence political conditions abroad by gathering information about Cuban cellphone users" or "to encourage popular opposition to the Cuban government."
"No, that is not correct," Shah said. "The purpose of the program was to support access to information and to allow people to communicate with each other. It was not for the purpose you just articulated."
But some messages sent to Cuban cellphones were sharp political satire. One early message sent on Aug. 7, 2009, took aim at the former Cuban telecommunications minister, Ramiro Valdes, who had once warned that the Internet was a "wild colt" that "should be tamed."
"Latest: Cuban dies of electrical shock from laptop. 'I told you so,' declares a satisfied Ramiro. 'Those machines are weapons of the enemy!"'
Others were marked in documents as drafts, and it was not immediately clear if they were ever transmitted by the service, which the government said ceased operations in 2012 because of a lack of funding.
Said one draft message: "THE BACKWARDS WORLD: 54% of Americans think Michael Jackson is alive and 86% of Cubans think Fidel Castro is dead." Another called Castro the "The coma-andante," a reference to Fidel's age.
"No," wrote organizers, apparently nixing that text. "Too political."
A USAID spokesman did not immediately reply to a request seeking comment Tuesday.
Last Thursday, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said that "no political content was ever supplied by anyone working on this project or running it. It was the people — the Cuban people on the ground who were doing so."
However, Alen Lauzan Falcon, a Havana-born satirical artist based in Chile, said Tuesday that he was hired to write the political texts, though he was never told about ZunZuneo's origins.
"I don't do cultural humor," he said. "I do political humor. Everything I do is politics even if it is humor about politics."
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press