Having once signaled a thawing of relations with Cuba, the Obama administration has since backpedaled. And now comes a rather strange tale in the US's long march to take down the Castro regime: Sometime in late 2009 or early 2010, the US government secretly launched a Twitter-like service whose goal was to gain as many Cuban users as possible before pushing them to dissent.
This comes via an AP report that's a rather fascinating read. According to the report, the service, dubbed "ZunZuneo," which is slang for a hummingbird's call, picked up "tens of thousands" of subscribers during its more than two years of operation. As you might expect, user data was collected in the hopes that it might prove politically valuable.
The project was spearheaded by the US Agency for International Development, which normal is focused on delivering aid to impoverished peoples worldwide. But it's also easy to forget that the internet is just as much a part of the mission to win hearts and minds as anything else. If you'll remember that another international outreach bureau spent $630,000 to buy Facebook likes for its pro-America pages, ZunZuneo shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
Of course, the secrecy of the whole thing is a bit ridiculous. From the AP:
USAID and its contractors went to extensive lengths to conceal Washington's ties to the project, according to interviews and documents obtained by the AP. They set up front companies in Spain and the Cayman Islands to hide the money trail, and recruited CEOs without telling them they would be working on a U.S. taxpayer-funded project.
In response, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah told PopSci that the program had congressional approval, wasn't a covert operation, and was subject to accountability guidelines. That, however, doesn't specifically rebut the AP's assertion that the goal was to keep ZenZuneo's US ties hidden from Cubans, as outlined in documents the AP obtained.
The project was a largely failure, and there's little online record of it having existed. A Facebook fan page with just over 300 likes remains, and features little more than links to Latin American news stories. A 2012 blog post touting the service explains how it worked a bit more in depth (translated by Google):
For people outside of Cuba, this does not have any significance, as giants like Twitter and Facebook notifications sent via SMS; but issues related to U.S. measures against Cuba, none of these companies has made contracts with Cubacel, the company's mobile Cuba, so it is not enabled that service.
Meanwhile, Zunzuneo has several advantages. First of all is designed so that only Cubans phones can be registered on the site. Furthermore, it is not only a way to learn for those who do not have Internet frequently, but it allows you to send free SMS between members of the network (from a computer connection).
While using an SMS-based network is a smart method for improving access and escaping internet controls, Twitter can do the same thing.
As we learned when we spoke to Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez last year, internet access in Cuba is highly restricted, which means opposing voices have long developed methods, especially SMS-based ones, to circumvent government controls.
With that in mind, ZunZuneo seems like a strange waste of resources—why not just push Twitter, especially if it's already been used by dissidents?
According to the AP, ZunZuneo was launched soon after USAID contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba, which suggests that it was designed with retribution in mind, and that an aid agency could do such a thing in secret is unnerving. But it's particularly insidious that the US government would develop its own secret offering to try to improve communication access for Cubans, just to turn around and use it to spy on them.