Andrés Carrión Alvarez lifted a black T-Mobile cellphone toward his eyes. He studied it. Then he began to speak, slowly, in Spanish.
“The government fears this little device,” he said through a translator in the living room of his Chattanooga apartment. “This is the source of all their problems.”
As Carrión placed the phone back on his table, he talked about the spread of information in Cuba. Almost no one can afford the Internet, he said. And he didn’t get a cellphone until 2012, when a friend gave him one.
A modern phone means information, he said. And information means power. Cellphones are special because they can be concealed, and its owners can record conversations with them. Sometimes members of Carrión’s group, the Patriotic Union of Cuba, smuggle them into jails to expose abuses.
Carrión, a Cuban rebel who was arrested several times after speaking out against Fidel and Raul Castro’s dictatorship, moved here in November when the United States granted him political asylum. Hours before he met with reporters Thursday afternoon, The Associated Press broke the news that the U.S. government had secretly attempted to organize protests by gaining access to Cubans’ cellphones and sending them text messages.
Carrión struggled to accept that this wasn’t the same propaganda he’d heard his whole life. The Castros control all the information, he said, and they’re always lying to their citizens, telling them that foreign governments want to harm them. Carrión said this misinformation was key to keeping the dictatorship intact.
But the AP report was not Cuban propaganda. The article relied on American sources. President Barack Obama’s administration even said the content of the report was correct — they just deny it was covert.
“Suggestions that this was covert are wrong,” White House Spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday. “Congress funds democracy programming for Cuba to help empower Cubans to access more information and to strengthen civil society.”
However, the AP report paints a different picture. It says that after President Raul Castro liberalized the use of cellphones in Cuba in 2008, U.S. government officials launched a secret plan to build a social media project aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government.
Cellphone use was becoming more widespread in Cuba, though its citizens did not have phones with Internet access. So, by partnering with technology contractors and creating shell companies in other countries, members of the U.S. Agency for International Development created a “Cuban Twitter” that relied on sending mass text messages to citizens.
Noting that text message services had inspired political uprisings in Moldova and the Philippines, members of the USAID hoped this spread of information would, as put in one internal document: “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”
At its peak, 40,000 Cubans used the service. The USAID called the program ZunZuneo — slang for the tweet of a Cuban hummingbird. The service did not lead to a revolution, and it ended in 2012 after money dried up.
Since the program came to light Thursday, many political leaders have criticized it. Some have questioned whether the USAID’s actions were legal.
In 2009, as ZunZuneo was on the verge of launching, members of oversight committees complained that the USAID would not provide details about some of its programs. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s State Department and foreign operations subcommittee, criticized ZunZuneo.
He said the program put at risk Cubans who didn’t know that the United States was pulling the strings. Second, the program was not approved by oversight committees. Also, the USAID launched the program months after the Cuban government arrested Alan Gross, a U.S. contractor who traveled to Cuba on a mission to expand the country’s Internet access.
“This is dumb, dumb, dumb,” Leahy told MSNBC on Thursday.
Then there are the legal questions. The USAID got access to 500,000 Cuban phone numbers when a “key contact” at Cubacel (the state-owned cellphone provider) gave the numbers to a Cuban engineer in Spain. The engineer then gave the numbers to members of the USAID and Creative Associates International, a U.S. contractor.
During a popular September 2009 concert in Cuba, another U.S. contractor sent text message “blasts” to these phone numbers with a series of surveys. About 100,000 Cubans responded. Then a member of Mobile Accord (yet another U.S. contractor) used the information from the survey to sort the Cubans by age, gender and “political tendencies.”
Carlos Sanchez Almeida, a lawyer specializing in European protection law, said the program appears to violate Spanish privacy laws.
Even so, as he learned the details of the program in Chattanooga on Thursday, Carrión said he supported U.S. actions.
“For the Cuban people to be free of communism, they’re going to need whatever kind of support they can get,” he said. “Any kind of plan, secret or open.”
Carrión said the spread of information is the No. 1 weapon for the Patriotic Union of Cuba. Since coming to the U.S., he tries to do as many media interviews as he can. He also tries to post YouTube videos of his group’s actions back home, as well as share online videos with whoever can access the Internet in Cuba.
Carrión also works with Luis Enrique Ferrer García, another member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba. After pushing for democratic reforms back home, García was arrested in 2003 and sentenced to 28 years in prison.
But, after an agreement between the Cuban government, the Spanish government and the Catholic church, García was freed in 2010. He moved to Miami a year later, and he has since helped the rebels by sending them money.
In a phone interview Thursday, Garcia said through a translator that propaganda is the key to a dictatorship. But with cellphones come more information, and with more information comes more organization.
“In just a few years,” he said of the potential of a free press, “(the people) would be free.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476.