Radio/TV Marti defends funding for Cuba program

The U.S. government’s Radio/TV Martí stations said Monday there is nothing “subversive,” as the Cuban government alleges, about a platform for cheap group text messages among Cubans run by the broadcasters.

“The Piramideo system provides for a free flow of information in a country where the media is controlled by the government,” said Carlos Garcia-Perez, director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which runs the Miami-based broadcasters.

Cuba’s official Juventud Rebelde newspaper reported Sunday that Piramideo was part of a “gigantic subversive campaign against Cuba” financed by the U.S. government in an attempt to undermine the island's communist government.

The allegation came on the heels of an Associated Press report that a Twitter-like system for Cubans called Zunzuneo and run by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sought to subvert the government. U.S. officials said Zunzuneo, which closed in 2012, was a “democracy promotion” effort.

USAID’s link to Zunzuneo was not public until the AP report. But Radio/TV Marti announced Piramideo last summer during a public presentation on how it was using novel ways to get around Havana's censorship, including USB drives made of paper.

Garcia-Perez said the program’s development and operational costs stand at about $300,000 over the past two years, and that about 8,500 people have signed up for the service and can drop out at any time.

Piramideo allows users to create groups, such as relatives or baseball aficionados, through a facility in Spain. Members can then send one message to the entire group at the cost of one text message. Text messages in Cuba cost nearly $1 each.

Juventud Rebelde quoted Hilda Arias, director of mobile services at the state-run telecommunications monopoly, as saying that the company has warned about foreign companies that provide text message services that it would take unspecified action if they send unsolicited messages to Cubans.

Radio/TV Marti use several “proxy servers” to get around Havana efforts to block access to the broadcasters’ Web pages, many of them named after Cuban food. One of Radio Marti’s proxy site last year was named, and TV Marti was Piramideo used

Cuba has about 2 million cell phone users, who have access to text messaging but not to data transfer systems. It also has the lowest Internet access rate in the Western Hemisphere.

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