A US aid agency ran a secret program in Cuba between 2010 and 2012 that aimed to foster a democracy movement by encouraging young people to sign up for a social network called ZunZuneo.
In an investigation bursting with Cold War-style intrigue, the AP explains how USAID, which is nominally a government development agency, bought half a million cell-phone numbers from a source at Cuba’s phone carrier, and create a Twitter-like service that at its peak was used by 40,000 Cubans.
The secret program, which was implemented through shell companies and a Washington subcontractor, sought to take advantage of the growing use of cell phones by young Cubans. The American officials running the program hoped that, by becoming linked on a social network, Cubans would have a powerful new communications platform that the Castro government would be afraid to shut down.
While the ZunZuneo (Spanish for “hummingbird”) project began as a system for Cubans to send text messages without detection, the American team’s “ambitions were bigger.” Specifically, the team envisioned Cubans would use ZunZuneo to exchange news about sports or the weather, but that activists and U.S. operatives could eventually use it for political purposes:
“We should gradually increase the risk,” USAID proposed in a document. It advocated using “smart mobs” only in “critical/opportunistic situations and not at the detriment of our core platform-based network.”
While the AP provides user descriptions to suggest the service was catching on, it shut down abruptly in 2012. The reason appears to be that USAID (or whoever was actually funding it) ran out of money to pay the fees for the text messages on which the platform was based.
The money itself appeared on USAID books as earmarked for a project in Pakistan carried out by the sub-contractor. Ultimately, however, USAID was in the awkward position of “paying tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to Cuba’s communist telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies.”
The report also notes that US officials consulted Twitter founder Jack Dorsey about how to manage the platform as it began to scale.
The disclosure of the secret US social network in Cuba will undoubtedly trigger debate about whether the measures were appropriate. On one hand, the Cuban government still exercises stifling control over the internet and other forms of communication. In this regard, the ZunZuneo can be seen as analogous to Radio Free Europe and other voices for free news.
On the other, the US activity may stir up uncomfortable memories of Cold War era schemes, including one where the CIA attempted to slip Fidel Castro an exploding cigar and another where they sought to destroy his charisma by making his beard fall off.