An AP investigation has revealed that Zunzuneo( Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet), a text message-based Twitter-like app that was popular in Cuba between 2010 and 2012, was masterminded by the U.S. government in an attempt to create political unrest and destabilize the communist Castro regime. American involvement was hidden through a series of secret shell companies that the government set up in Spain and the Cayman Islands, and financed through foreign banks.
The plan called for building a subscriber base for the app through “non-controversial content” like sports news and music, and later to introduce political content. Once usage reached a critical mass, the U.S. government would introduce politics into the mix, and inspire spontaneous mass gatherings that they hoped would trigger a "Cuban Spring", and “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”
At its peak, a satirist hired by the U.S. polled users and got 100,000 responses— the results of which were compiled into a U.S. controlled database, along with other collected data. Users were broken into five segments, depending on their allegiance to the Cuban government. These ranged from the “democratic movement”, which it listed as “still (mostly) irrelevant” to the “hardcore system supporters”, which the database listed as “Talibanes”, or “the Taliban.”
In the report, the AP stated that it was unclear if the White House had knowledge of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) project, even though U.S. law requires authorization for covert operations abroad. In a press conference on Thursday, White House press secretary Jay Carney denied implications that the program was covert. "The program has been debated in Congress and reviewed by the GAO [Government Accountability Office], which found it was in accordance with US law," Carney said.
That assertion contradicts a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord (a contractor involved in the initiative) that was quoted in the report. "There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement," it read. "This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission."
USAID, best known for humanitarian aid in developing countries, funded the project to a tune of $1.6 million according to the AP, and operated the app mostly from Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The AP’s report contradicts USAID’s claims that they do not operate covert operations in countries where they work, and threatens to undermine the trust that the agency needs to operate from host governments.
ZunZuneo was conceived of and executed after a half a million Cuban cellphone numbers were leaked to USAID and Creative Services International, a Washington D.C. based for-profit company that has made hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. contracts. It is unclear whether USAID or Creative Services started the plan, but the two entities worked closely together for the duration.
The report details a narrative that shows USAID slowly getting in over its head while trying to mimic a commercial enterprise with fake ads, marketing campaigns, and all. Since cell phone use and internet access are prohibitively expensive in Cuba, the only way they figured they could recruit members was by offering the service for free, and footing the bill.
At a crucial point, Creative Services was frustrated that the project was unable to be self-sustaining and freed from the U.S. government. As USAID was stuck paying tens of thousands of dollars in text message fees to Cuba’s telecommunications monopoly through secret bank accounts and front companies, the situation was assessed as an “unsolvable problem.”
The app boasted 40,000 users in March of 2011, at which point USAID abandoned its hope of reaching 200,000 users by capping the amount of subscribers far lower than they wanted. Also, an unnamed former ZunZuneo worker told the AP that the Cuban government was catching on and was moving to block the site.
By mid-2012, users were having trouble accessing the service, and soon after it mysteriously disappeared.
The AP reports that Cubans were unaware that the service was financed or backed by the U.S. government.
“How was I supposed to realize that?” former ZunZuneo user Ernesto Guerra told the AP. “It’s not like there was a sign saying ‘Welcome to ZunZuneo, brought to you by USAID.”
Since the service shut down, nothing has stepped up to fill the gap it left behind. Internet service is still restricted, and heavily censored.
The report ultimately raises the question: if they did it in Cuba, where else might the U.S. government be attempting to pull off similar stunts?
In a document unveiled in the AP investigation, USAID staff looked at how social media helped organizers after a disputed 2009 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was at that point that they concluded it was “an important foreign policy tool.”
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.