The US Agency for International Development (USAID) just got into more than a bit of trouble over its scheming to create ZunZuneo — a text message-based Twitter rip-off it hoped to eventually infiltrate with political content that might inspire a “Cuban Spring.”
The secret program was shut down long before lighting up any kind of cyber revolution, but the story — which the Associated Press broke on Thursday — was fascinating in a number of ways: the program funded by unknowing taxpayers was a digital-age throwback from the Cold War, it was possibly illegal, and it put the development agency right into CIA territory.
But the plan to awaken the revolutionary spirit of Cuba’s youth through their cell phones — as a majority of the population has limited or no access to the internet — was as interesting as it was naive.
On the one hand, it signaled a change in strategy in terms of the US government’s meddling with regimes it doesn’t like. Instead of spending blood and billions of dollars in attempts to overthrow them, why not bring in some social media, add a touch of propaganda, and let frustrated locals do the rest? And instead of using the military or secret services, why not mask it all with a development project.
But Cuba is no Tunisia, and the misguided program showed just how little the US government — via its agencies — understands the country, critics said.
“They seem to have people who really know technology but don’t know Cuba,” Ted Henken, an American professor who blogs under the name “El Yuma” and is plugged in with the island’s small but strong community of cyber dissenters, told VICE News. “Just because the technology exists, doesn’t mean that it will be helpful to activists.”
It might actually hurt them, as attempts by the US government to control information risk delegitimizing those Cubans already voicing their dissent at a great risk to themselves.
“I think it was unethical to not inform the users of where this was coming from. The knowledge of this program’s existence only strengthens the [Cuban] government’s propaganda that all cyber dissidents are really mercenaries under orders of the US,” Henken said. “Because that’s not true, and because that is an argument that will have more credibility now that the story is out there, it actually ends up doing more harm than good.”
'This is like Argo, in Cuba.'
A number of outspoken critics of the Cuban government — including the internationally renowned blogger Yoani Sanchez — have always made a point of underlining their independence from US interests in the country, for instance by declining US government money or by refusing to use the US Interest Section in Havana, where Cubans can access the internet by appointment.
“Because they don’t want to be mistakenly labeled mercenaries,” Henken said. “Even though they already are labeled that.”
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, another prominent Cuban blogger, called the USAID program “completely ridiculous,” and said that it gave the Havana government just another chance to attack US interventionism in Cuba, rather than admit its own repression of critical voices from within.
“Somehow this news will only demonstrate that the blockade and the aggression come from Washington DC, when it’s the Cuban government that is a predator of freedom of information,” Lazo told VICE News. “This is part of the diplomatic war, in order for the Cuban government to remain isolated and to repress with impunity. We even have this slogan, ‘In a country that’s surrounded by enemies, any kind of dissent is considered treason.’”
Henken, the US professor, slammed the USAID program as “ham-handed,” “a bad idea, badly deployed,” and “another example of the misinformed and sloppy work of USAID when it comes to Cuba.”
He — like several others — also questioned the legality of an initiative that seemed to step well beyond USAID’s mandate to promote development.
“This is like Argo, in Cuba,” he joked.
Except for the fact that ZunZuneo failed — and is now backfiring.
US officials defended the program, however. A USAID spokesman said in a statement that the project was reviewed by competent authorities and that it was legal and “appropriate.”
“The purpose of the ZunZuneo project was to create a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves, period,” Matt Herrick said. “At the initial stages, the grantee sent tech news, sports scores, weather, and trivia to build interest and engage Cubans. After that, Cubans were able to talk among themselves, and we are proud of that.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Thursday that the program was “discreet,” but not “a covert program.” He added that he was not aware of White House involvement but, like USAID, he said the administration was “quite proud” of its efforts to bring communication to “non-permissive environments."
That Cuba is hardly a permissive environment is no big news.
Though Raul Castro loosened up restrictions on mobile use in the country, the internet — including via smart phones — remains out of reach of most, and the few websites that are available are highly restricted by the government.
“This is the real point: we have a government in Cuba that is not willing to give us what is our right. It’s my right to receive, diffuse, and promote information,” Lazo said. “And that’s completely blocked. That’s the real blockade.”
But dissenters have long developed methods, including SMS-based techniques, to get around that censorship. ZunZuneo, they said, offered nothing new.
“In Cuba, there's government controlled media that is utterly ideological, biased, and one-sided. In that monopolistic environment, people are desperate for more open and freer information and communication,” Henken said. “Most Cubans don’t want propaganda from the US to replace propaganda from Cuba, but they would prefer to have two propagandas than just one."
Still, he added, “most people would prefer to be informed about where the help is coming from” — which ZunZuneo failed to do.
'Havana’s Maidan moment, for the time being, seems still far away.'
The program reportedly reached about 40,000 users at its peak, but members of Cuba’s repressed but combative online community said they had hardly ever heard of it — and some even questioned whether the reported users might not in fact have been under the control of the Cuban government itself.
“I really am wondering who these 40,000 users are and what kind of network they constitute? Nobody knows them,” Lazo said. He later remembered getting an invitation to join some new service, which he ignored.
“It was something about receiving news headlines through messages,” he added, saying better options were already available. "But I never really cared."
Lazo also speculated that the Cuban government might have been in on the initiative, and pointed to the fact that other services that allowed Cubans to communicate with the outside world were regularly shut down by authorities, but ZunZuneo wasn’t. Either because it wasn’t effective, or because it was convenient to them, he suggested. “It’s very strange,” Lazo said.
Lazo and other activists also agreed that the notion that the US could quickly ignite unrest in the country was deeply misguided.
“Yoani has consistently said that Cuba is very far from being ready for any kind of ‘Cuban Spring,’" Henken said, speaking of Sanchez, whom he knows well. "Because people are still very fearful, very uninformed, isolated.”
Sanchez was actually in the US right before the story broke, trying to raise awareness about new blockages on Twitter use in the island. On Wednesday, she even met with Vice President Joe Biden.
VICE News reached out to her but did not immediately hear back.
Just as the network didn’t help Cuban activists when it first launched, the “USAID Twitter” story is now obscuring more important issues that Cubans themselves are trying to raise.
Havana’s Maidan moment, for the time being, seems still far away.
“There is not enough connectivity and internet penetration, thanks to the Cuban government,” Lazo said. “The political police don’t fool around. They have the monopoly. They can control an Arab Spring situation months in advance.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi
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