You know how leftist Latin American leaders like Nicolas Maduro are forever claiming the American government is trying to unseat them via wild plots that sound cooked up by guys living in tin-foil-covered studio apartments? This morning comes a stark reminder that -- at least when it comes to Cuba -- the U.S. government is actually crazy enough to prove those conspiracy theorists right.
An AP investigation has found that the U.S. secretly created ZunZuneo, a Twitter-esque mobile platform that has recently accumulated tens of thousands of users in Cuba, all with the covert goal of eventually stirring up an Arab Spring-like uprising against the Castros.
The incredible plot involved a labyrinth of off-shore shell companies, executives kept in the dark about who was organizing the mobile network, and -- at the core -- a top-secret mission to topple the Castro government through popular uprising.
Critics have already lashed out at the news, pointing out it put unsuspecting Cuban users in danger, possibly circumvented congressional oversight, and went into effect right after Alan Gross, a USAID contractor, was arrested in Cuba while trying to set up internet access on the island.
"On the face of it, there are several aspects about this that are troubling," Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Appropriations Committee's State Department and foreign operations subcommittee, tells the AP.
The plot was masterminded by a midlevel USAID manager, Joe McSpedon. He assembled a team of tech contractors that helped mask the government's role in launching ZunZuneo, named for Cuban slang for a hummingbird's tweet.
The plan was simple enough. They'd recruit users on the increasingly cell-friendly island with noncontroversial content: sports scores and weather updates that wouldn't attract the attention of government censors.
Then, when a critical mass had downloaded the app, they'd start sending political agitation and organizing "smart mobs." The goal: "Renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society," according to a document the AP obtained.
Twitter played a key role in organizing the crowds that stirred up the Arab Spring revolutions throughout the Middle East, and the social networking service clearly inspired the Cuban plot.
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ZunZuneo eventually amassed more than 40,000 users, but the coup-stirring piece of the plot apparently never came to pass.
The news could be a critical blow to USAID, the government agency meant to distribute overseas aid. The group is routinely accused of being a CIA cover, and the cell-phone plot will surely make legit aid workers' jobs in hostile countries very difficult in the short term.
As for Fidel, he's presumably sitting on a Havana balcony chuckling to himself as he reads about the latest plot on his government, wondering if this one is even nuttier than the exploding cigar routine.