MIAMI — Defenders of a U.S. government program for Cubans fired back in the U.S. Senate on Thursday, with Marco Rubio urging the Twitter-like platform be restored, and Bob Menendez asking for documents on all similar programs around the world.
Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he wants to figure out whether the ZunZuneo platform created by the U.S. Agency for International Development was consistent with USAID programs for Internet freedoms in other authoritarian countries.
“Our work in Cuba is no different than our efforts to promote freedom of expression and uncensored access to information in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Iran, China or North Korea,” he told a committee hearing with USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.
USAID’s ZunZuneo program came under intense scrutiny after The Associated Press reported that it was a “covert” effort to promote opposition to the communist government. USAID and the White House have rejected The AP’s characterization.
With supporters of USAID’s programs in Cuba saying they are legal and necessary, and critics saying they are ineffective and wasteful, one program supervisor who asked for anonymity said Wednesday that the controversy “is turning into a food fight.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the Senate appropriations panel, told Shah during a hearing with his committee Tuesday that ZunZuneo, which allowed Cubans to send short messages to each other from 2010 to 2012, was “a cockamamie idea.”
Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and Cuban-American, says it was “dumb, dumb, and even dumber” to suggest that Cubans don’t deserve the same freedoms as the rest of the world and took a jab at Leahy.
“Let me say for the record: When it comes to the issue of Cuba or your work in any closed society, I do not believe that USAID’s actions … are, in any way, a ‘cockamamie idea,’” he told Shah.
“You come at a time when USAID is making headlines for, in my mind, doing nothing more than the job you were appointed to do,” Menendez said. “It is common sense that we shouldn’t ask the government of Iran or Egypt or China for permission to support advocates of free speech, human rights, or political pluralism or to provide uncensored access to the Internet or social media.”
Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican from South Florida, said he wanted to shoot down the “insinuation” that ZunZuneo was illegal and covert and argued that the platform was successful, with 64,000 users before it ran out of USAID money.
“When is the last time that we’ve been outraged by a government program that undermines a tyranny and provides access to a people of a country to the free flow of information and the ability to talk to each other,” he asked.
“And so, my question would be, and I know this is a long-winded question: When do we start this program again?” he said. “What do we need to do to start, not just this program, but expand it, so that people in Cuba can do what I just did?”
What Rubio had just done was to send a tweet that he said would have landed him in jail if he had sent it from Cuba, where the government blocks access to Twitter and holds a monopoly on Internet access and telecommunications.
Rubio’s tweet: “raul castro is a human rights violator &tyrant. people of #cuba have a right to have access to internet and social media.”