The scandal unleashed as a result of Associated Press (AP) revelations regarding the undercover construction of a mobile phone messaging system by the United States, with the goal of overthrowing the Cuban government, continues to develop, despite White House and State Department efforts to contain it. There are, however, details of the U.S. Aid for International Development (USAID) Zunzuneo project which have not been addressed, and questions which have not been raised.
The Nicaraguan daily La Prensa reported that the messaging system’s programmer was a citizen of this country, named Mario Bernheim, who works in the U.S. embassy in Managua. While a Costa Rican newspaper, La Nación, has revealed that the project was launched in 2009 from a secret office in San José, at a distance from the U.S. embassy, despite the fact that USAID has not had an official presence in Costa Rica since 1996. La Nación identified Joseph (Joe) Duke McSpedon, a USAID employee who visited the country on “42 occasions, between 2009 and 2011, arriving on commercial and private flights,” and two other persons, contracted to work on the project by Creative Associates, a Washington consulting firm.
According to the Costa Rican paper, these individuals were “Noy Villalobos Echeverría, who remained in the country for periods of up to three months, according to immigration records, and his brother Mario Berheim Echeverría, a young programmer who developed the system to send mass messages to Cuba.”
Costa Rican Minister of Communication Carlos Roverssi stated, “An investigation of the case must be undertaken; it is very serious. If this is true, it is a serious affront to Costa Rica. It is an issue for the Foreign Ministry. But of course, an explication must be requested.”
From Spain, eldiario.es reported that the Spanish company Lleida.net, identified by AP as responsible for sending the Zunzuneo SMS, has ties to the right-wing Guardia Civil. The company released a communiqué, making an effort to avoid using the words Cuba or Zunzuneo, saying “If, at any time, one of the users of Lleida.net has committed any type of illegal act, Lleida.net is, as it has always been, at the disposal of competent authorities, to provide necessary information through legally established channels.”
Internet attorney Carlos Sánchez Almeida commented to eldiario.es that Spain’s Data Protection Law (in article 7, appendix 4) prohibits the use of information to create lists based on political affiliation – among Zunzuneo’s activities, according to AP – since this is information which merits special protection. He stated that the messaging system’s actions were in violation of Spanish law, since, “The Zunzuneo team, in an illegal fashion, collected personal information from a list of telephones and sent unsolicited messages via a Spanish platform.” Sánchez Almeida was explicit on his Twitter account, which has some 23,000 followers, saying, “If Cuban citizens’ data has been handled illegally in Spain, the Spanish justice system must intervene.”
In the meantime, AP issued a new dispatch, adding to previous revelations that persons very close to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana were part of the Zunzuneo plan developed by USAID. In the United States, an influential publication, The New Yorker, commented on White House assertions that the project was not an undercover operation, “This kind of bald-faced disingenuousness is risible. Whatever it is labeled, there seems to be little doubt that ZunZuneo functioned as a secret intelligence operation aimed ultimately at subversion.” Politico Magazine entitled an article about the mobile phone social network fiasco ‘Bay of Tweets,’ in a clear reference to the failed 1961 U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion.
Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who published National Security Agency (NSA) information leaked by Edward Snowden, described ZunZuneo as “another drop in the bucket” of propaganda on the Internet, and Tracey Eaton published documents on his Along the malecon blog showing how Zunzuneo was financed, to the tune of 1.6 million dollars, by diverting funds destined for Pakistan.
Hilda Arias, director of mobile services for Cuba’s national telephone company Etecsa, spoke with Juventud Rebelde about the issue and has been quoted widely describing the multiple spam attacks on Cuban systems generated from U.S. platforms, run directly by the government. She said, “The so-called CAN SPAM Act, Public Law 108-187 approved by the U.S. Congress in December, 2003, and signed immediately by President George W. Bush himself, clearly prohibits sending commercial, or other kinds of messages, without the explicit permission of the receiver.
“Nevertheless, the promoters of so-called Martinoticias, which also involves other subversive projects in Cuba such as Cubasincensura and Diario de Cuba, appear to believe that when it comes to Cuba, they are above the law.
“Through October, 2013, according to information obtained by Etecsa, including an analysis of the origin of the text messaging, they had sent 219 mass spam messages, for a total of 1,055,746 SMS to Cuban users.”
Juventud Rebelde also addressed a project called Commotion, to which USAID has allotted 4.3 million dollars for the period between September, 2012, and September, 2015, to hire subcontractors to establish clandestine wireless networks in Cuba, re-attempting Zunzuneo via another SMS network named Piramideo, launched by the Transmissions Office and directed toward Cuba in 2013, along with other projects like Hablalosinmiedo and Singularidad.
It is no surprise that spammers who receive funds, for the likes of Diario de Cuba and Martinoticias, are among the few voices raised in support of such illegal U.S. government activities. Diario de Cuba, financed by the U.S. via the National Endowment for Democracy, said in an editorial that Zunzuneo revelations “had caused an unmerited international stir.”
Martí Noticias issued a statement signed by director Carlos García Pérez saying, “Piramideo is one more communication tool, like radio, television, DVDs, flash drives, e-mail and text messages, which Martí media offers its audience.” According to documents published by Tracey Eaton, Piramideo was developed by Washington Software, in Germantown, Maryland, for Martí Radio and TV, at a cost of 3.2 million dollars. In April of 2013, he showed on his blog that the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) had paid this company huge sums:
- $531,576 to expand proxy Internet
- $500,987 to develop an SMS social network
- $451,796 to circumvent Cuban government efforts to block their electronic messages
- $173,074 to send messages to Cuba via SMS
- $96,028 to program computers
- $84,000 to design and operate a SMS system
- $83,050 to run an unspecified operation related to TI and architecture
- $60,275 to send mass e-mails
- $2,580 to pay for internet gateways
Eaton clarified that the documents do not indicate the total number of text messages sent, although one does show that the BBG paid Washington Software $14,474 for 361,873 messages sent in October of 2011.
Martinoticias’ penchant for spam is not limited to SMS or Piramideo. In August of 2012, I, who am not a subscriber, was obliged to denounce a spam attack originating from their Twitter account. (La Pupila Insomne)