MIAMI – Leaders with the largest nonprofit organization for young Cuban-Americans quietly provided strategic support for the federal government's secret "Cuban Twitter" program, connecting contractors with potential investors and serving as paid consultants, The Associated Press has learned.
Interviews and documents obtained by the AP show leaders of Roots of Hope were approached by the "Cuban Twitter" program's organizers in early 2011 about taking over the text-messaging service, known as ZunZuneo, and discussed shifting it into private hands. Few investors were willing to privately finance ZunZuneo, and Roots of Hope members dropped the idea. But at least two people on its board of directors went on to work as consultants, even as they served in an organization that explicitly refused to accept any U.S. government funds and distanced itself from groups that did.
The disclosure could have wide repercussions for what has become one of the most visible and influential Cuban-American organizations.
Chris Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, said he wasn't surprised that Roots of Hope's leaders had been approached by federal contractors about the project, given the large sums of money available and the limited number of creative, tech-savvy groups that work on Cuba issues.
"I think it does risk tainting the group, a group that I think has done amazing work and changed the discussion and mobilized a new generation toward a much more pragmatic agenda," Sabatini said.
Roots of Hope has been a key player in events like Latin pop star Juanes' 2009 peace concert that drew more than a million people in Havana, and in the promotion of technology on the island. Its leaders recently accompanied Cuban blogger and Castro critic Yoani Sanchez to Washington to help her develop a new independent media project in Cuba. Links to the U.S. Agency for International Development, which funded ZunZuneo, could make that prospect more difficult. Sanchez herself has been adamant in not accepting any government funding.
USAID spokesman Matt Herrick declined to provide the names of any individuals employed by its contractor but said Roots of Hope did not enter into any grants or contracts related to ZunZuneo, which ended in September 2012. However, documents obtained by the AP show extensive involvement at times by the organization's board members.
An AP investigation published April 3 revealed the U.S. government went to great lengths to hide its role in ZunZuneo. The program, operated by contractor Creative Associates International, used foreign bank transactions and computer networks. Documents show ZunZuneo organizers aimed to effect democratic change in Cuba and drafted overtly political messages critical of the Castro government. The Obama administration has maintained the service had a more neutral purpose.
Roots of Hope was launched at a conference at Harvard University in 2003 by college students seeking to connect with youth on the island. The organization quickly established a network of more than 4,000 students and young professionals. In 2009, it began focusing on technology access in Cuba with an initiative to collect and send cellphones and later USB flash drives to the island.
In each of its projects, Roots of Hope publicly steered away from other Miami-based exile groups known for receiving U.S. funding. Nevertheless, in 2011 Creative Associates officer Xavier Utset approached Roots of Hope co-founder and then-executive director Felice Gorordo about spinning off the ZunZuneo project.
Gorordo confirmed he'd been asked to help identify donors but said he did not know the project had a political agenda.
"I thought it had merit. It wasn't political. It had the goal of promoting shared information," Gorordo said. "But it was not viable because it was a government project, and we do not accept U.S. government funding."
Documents and interviews show Gorordo discussed and helped arrange meetings between the contractors and potential private investors. By early spring 2011 the talks fizzled.
Meanwhile, two other active Roots of Hope members, Chris Gueits and Raul Moas, began working for another project contractor, Mobile Accord. Moas was a Roots of Hope volunteer who joined the board of directors in August 2011. Gueits was also on the organization's board of directors that year.
For a period of about three months, Moas was significantly involved in the now-defunct ZunZuneo program, reviewing some of the project's test text messages to those on the island and approaching potential investors, according to the documents. Moas and Roots of Hope declined to comment. Gueits, Creative Associates and Mobile Accord did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Several project emails copied to Moas mention his salary and problems with the program's website and messaging systems.
One internal project memo describes a trip Moas and Gueits made to Denver to train with Mobile Accord staffers, adding: "Raul has been a fantastic addition to the team."
U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Fla., said he does not believe the connection will damage the group in the long term.
"You are asking for purity for people who are just trying to help Cuban civil society in a place where freedom of speech and other freedoms do not exist," he said.