USAID’s ‘Cuban Twitter’ scheme flops

The US Agency for International Development (USAID), a US government foreign aid agency, secretly ran a cell phone-based imitation of the Twitter social networking service in Cuba from 2010 to 2012, according to an April 3 report by the Associated Press (AP) wire service. The service—named "ZunZuneo," Cuban slang for a hummingbird's tweet—was developed in conjunction with two private contractors, the Washington, DC-based Creative Associates International and the Denver-based Mobile Accord. ZunZuneo was popular with young Cubans, who were unaware of its origin; by 2012 the service had some 40,000 subscribers.

The Cuban government restricts Internet access but encourages the use of cell phones, provided by the state-owned enterprise Cubacel. Starting in 2009 and using 500,000 phone numbers supplied secretly by a "key contact" at Cubacel, USAID and Creative Associates began constructing a messaging service similar to Twitter but based on cell phone text messages rather than the internet. ZunZuneo went public in February 2010, with nonpolitical messages on subjects like music and sports.

But providing Cubans with a social network was apparently not USAID's main goal. The agency eventually planned to use ZunZuneo to create what it called "smart mobs" in "critical/opportunistic situations," according to USAID documents, with the strategic objective of "push[ing Cuba] out of a stalemate through tactical and temporary initiatives, and get[ting] the transition process going again towards democratic change." Planning for ZunZuneo started about a year after USAID officials discussed "between five to seven different transition plans" for "hastening a peaceful transition to a democratic, market-oriented society" in Cuba, according to documents filed in federal court in Washington in January 2013. USAID also used the service to construct what AP described as "a vast database about the Cuban subscribers, including gender, age, 'receptiveness' and 'political tendencies'"; the agency said it could use this information to "maximize our possibilities to extend our reach."

The "Cuban Twitter" project eventually unraveled because of the difficulty of keeping ZunZuneo's origins secret and the cost of running it—including the large payments USAID's front companies had to make to Cubacel for the text messages. By the end of 2012 ZunZuneo had collapsed—to the disappointment of many Cuban users—without ever being used to promote "smart mobs." (AP, April 3)

The Cuban government quickly denounced the project after the AP story's publication. "The US should respect international law and the intentions and principles of the United Nation's Charter," Cuban Foreign Ministry North American division director Josefina Vidal said on April 4. She called for the US to "end its illegal and covert actions against Cuba." (La Jornada, Mexico, April 5 from AFP, DPA) Reaction was not much more favorable in Washington, where USAID head Rajiv Shah is scheduled to testify on April 8 before the Senate Appropriations Committee's State Department and Foreign Operations Subcommittee. In a television appearance on April 3, the subcommittee's chair, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), described the project as "dumb, dumb, dumb." (AP, April 4)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 6.