SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) — The Costa Rican government says it's waiting for the Obama administration to explain why it improperly devised a secret "Cuban Twitter" network from inside the Central American nation's borders despite warnings in 2009 that the plan could jeopardize the two countries' diplomatic relations.
Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo said it was "inappropriate" to use his country for developing the primitive social media network, known as ZunZuneo, which aimed to stir political unrest in Cuba. The network was created under the U.S. Agency for International Development, but its users were unaware it was backed by the U.S. government.
"I think it's inappropriate to use an embassy in Costa Rica for this type of operation that harms a third country," Castillo said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We're not filing a complaint. The point is that embassies accredited in Costa Rica don't have to submit their plans or programs for the Costa Rican government's approval."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki acknowledged Wednesday that the U.S. Embassy in San Jose received a diplomatic note from Costa Rica requesting an explanation after the AP first reported on the program in early April. "In the following days, embassy staffers have reached out to their MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) counterparts on multiple occasions about the issue and those conversations have been ongoing," she said.
When asked about the issue on Thursday, Costa Rica's Foreign Vice Minister Carlos Roverssi said: "Look, when we found out through AP, which is the agency that made the information public, we officially asked the government of the United States to clarify the facts exactly as they have been denounced.
"The government of the Republic was not aware of this," Roverssi said on the sidelines of a Central America banking conference in the capital of San Jose. "This happened in 2008 and we are awaiting the reply of the government of the United States."
Documents obtained by the AP show that contractors working on ZunZuneo went to extensive lengths to hide its ties to the U.S., using foreign companies and computer servers paid for via a bank account in the Cayman Islands. They did so after acquiring more than 400,000 Cuban cellphone numbers from the island country's state-run telecommunications provider.
The AP found that ZunZuneo's development team initially operated out of Central America. A USAID manager supervised the work of U.S. contractor Creative Associates International from an office in San Jose, an unusual arrangement that raised eyebrows in Washington, according to U.S. officials.
USAID spokesman Matt Herrick said in an April 7 blog post that AP's initial investigation "suggests there was an inappropriate base of operations established in Costa Rica outside of normal U.S. government procedures." He wrote that the "government of Costa Rica was informed of the program on more than one occasion."
The U.S. government has denied that the program was secret or that it had a political agenda. Since the AP's initial report, a Senate panel asked USAID to turn over all records about ZunZuneo as part of a broader review of the agency's civil-society efforts worldwide. In congressional hearings earlier this month, lawmakers debated whether USAID — best known for its humanitarian mission — should be running such a cloak-and-dagger operation instead of spy agencies like the CIA.
Costa Rica's Foreign Ministry told the U.S. Embassy in June 2009 that the plan to develop the social media network could lead to "political difficulties" for Costa Rica, and it refused to grant diplomatic status to two U.S. government contractors involved in the program, La Nacion, Costa Rica's largest newspaper, reported Tuesday.
According to an internal Foreign Ministry memorandum, Javier Sancho Bonilla, protocol and state ceremonial director for the ministry, said the project "could create a situation politically inconvenient since it can be interpreted that it would violate the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries." The note was sent to the foreign minister's chief of staff, Elaine White, in June 2009.
Sancho's memo also suggested that Costa Rica withdraw from its cooperation agreement with the U.S. government, which had been signed under the umbrella of the Alliance for Progress, an initiative of U.S. President John F. Kennedy aimed at preventing the emergence of Cuban-style revolutions in the rest of Latin America.
The Foreign Ministry told the U.S. Embassy that the ZunZuneo plan exceeded the agreed limits of binational cooperation.
"Until now, the Cuban government hasn't complained to us because of this," Castillo said Tuesday. "It may be that there were illegalities committed while this program was being executed, but that is solely the responsibility of the U.S. government."
Arce reported from Managua, Nicaragua, and Gillum from Washington. Associated Press writers Mathew Lee in Washington and Desmond Butler in Istanbul contributed to this report.