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How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: The Problem with ZunZuneo and "Cuban Twitter"

BY Anne Nelson | Monday, April 7 2014

Rock painting of the "Cuban Five" (Photo copyright: Anne Nelson, 2013)

On April 3, the AP broke the story of ZunZuneo, a USAID-funded text messaging service in Cuba designed to circumvent government censorship and build a platform for dissent.

Although US officials claim that the project was fully approved and broke no laws, it has triggered widespread controversy. The project began by illicitly acquiring some half a million Cuban cell phone numbers. It went on to set up shell companies working on US government contracts without the knowledge of the employees, and recruited a user base of 40,000 Cubans, who participated without knowing it was a U.S. government project. According to an article in The Washington Post, it collected user data along the way, indicating gender, age, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.” The database assigned the results to five categories, ranging from “democratic movement” -- deemed “still (largely) irrelevant” – to “hard-core system supporters,” nicknamed “Talibanes.” The program was launched in 2009, in the wake of the Iranian protests that illustrated the potential of social media as a political instrument. The creators aspired to create Cuban “smart mobs” to take advantage of “critical/opportunistic situations.” Therefore, they added, the “landscape needs to be large enough to hide full opposition members who may sign up for service.”

The idea of providing U.S. government funding to fuel the opposition in Cuba is nothing new. Following the fiascos of the Bay of Pigs and the CIA’s opera buffo attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro (including an exploding cigar), the efforts turned to media. Radio Marti, founded in1985, originally operated as a news outlet in the Voice of America tradition from Washington. In 1996 it yielded to pressure from the Cuban exile community and moved to Miami. There, the service reduced its news quotient and stepped up coverage and encouragement of anti-government protests. Not surprisingly, the more strident its propaganda became, the less its credibility among the Cuban public.

USAID created another mishap in the case of Alan Gross, a subcontractor who had been sent to Cuba to set secret wireless networks for Cuba’s Jewish community. (Ironically, according to a recent visit to Havana’s leading synagogue, Cuba’s 1500 Jews are among the best-connected citizens on the island.) Gross was never informed that his project was defined as espionage under Cuban law. In 2009 he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison, and after five years, he remains in prison, in deteriorating health. The Cubans have tied his release to the fate of their own agents, the “Cuban Five,” who were and imprisoned for intelligence activities among the Cuban community in Miami in 1998. (Two have been released, leaving the “Cuban Three.”) The Obama administration has refused to approve a swap for Gross, although had he been an actual spy instead of a tech consultant, such an arrangement would have been commonplace.

There is no doubt that Cuba represents a freedom of information disaster area. The state controls all media outlets, and its print and broadcast products contain nothing that could be described as “journalism.” There is no opportunity to present opposition viewpoints, and even routine reporting on crime, traffic accidents, and the weather occurs exclusively at the government’s pleasure.

Digital media has arrived, but full of contradictions. Internet access exists at hotels and public computing centers, at a price that is beyond the reach of most Cubans. Cell phones are spreading rapidly, but without smart phone capability. Increasing numbers of Cubans own home computers, many of them provided by relatives living abroad, and they are able to send and receive emails. Popular international platforms such as Facebook and Wikipedia are available on a sporadic basis at best. The government has developed its own “Intranet,” a miniature version of China’s Great Firewall, with Cuba-only versions of social networking sites –- though many young Cubans feel left out of the global conversation.

Cuba’s erratic digital environment explains the keen interest met by USAID’s ZunZuneo. Young Cubans live by text, even more than their U.S. counterparts, and the platform was offered at an unusually low cost, thanks to the hidden U.S. subsidy. It engaged users on safe topics such as popular Cuban music as a starting point (as it laid the groundwork for the “smart mobs” of the future). In other words, it provided a service to an underserved population that wasn’t otherwise available – a worthy goal in terms of development goals.

So why was it such a terrible idea? Let’s start with three reasons:

1. As a secret, government-financed operation, ZunZuneo lured Cuban users into what they thought was a safe space, where they could participate in online communication without political risk. They spend their daily lives in an environment where every challenge to the Cuban government and state-controlled information is described as a U.S.-financed conspiracy. Offering up a real U.S.-financed conspiracy simply adds credence to the next round of conspiracy charges against other digital services, and by extension, against independent citizen activists – in Cuba and beyond.

2. The lack of transparency was accompanied by a lack of accountability. ZunZuneo suddenly appeared in 2009, grew to a user base of 40,000, and disappeared just as abruptly in 2012. Not only were the users misled as to the nature of the platform, they were also left seduced and abandoned without explanation when the funding ran out. The history of U.S. government media assistance is littered with similar cases -- starting with Egypt and Afghanistan.

3. The original half million Cuban phone numbers were acquired in a leak, and used to build a database of users’ personal and political profiles. This practice is uncomfortably close to how data is used in U.S. political campaigns, where canvassers enter the political proclivities of householders into a database that is mined in future campaigns (and sometimes mine their Facebook contacts without their knowledge). In the U.S., this practice, while not illegal, could imply an invasion of privacy. In Cuba the stakes are higher, given that such information could compromise the security of the unwitting user. A single leak in the opposite direction could provide the Cuban government with a ready-made (if misleading) database-cum-enemies list, courtesy of the U.S. government.

There is one simple step the U.S. could take that would truly advance freedom of expression in Cuba. That would be to lift the embargo in general, and restrictions on communications technologies in particular, hardware and software alike. Yoani Sánchez, Cuba’s leading dissident blogger, has described how she and her friends have been reduced to assembling computer out of parts fished out of the garbage.

The U.S. Treasury Department has blocked some programs, such as Google Analytics, and imposes unwieldy review processes on others, such as online learning platform Coursera. Cuban hospitals struggle to hack the software for electronic medical equipment.

As Cuba expert Larry Press points out, “How many organizations unilaterally censor themselves in order to avoid problems? This feels more like bureaucratic rust than an intentional policy, but blocking or delaying access to free educational material is a bad idea.”

The message we should be sending to Cubans is that freedom of information is a fundamental right, to be declared and supported with openness and transparency – not muddled by antiquated restrictions and sordid games of spy-vs-spy.

Anne Nelson is an author and media analyst who teaches at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. Her publications can be found at Follow her at anelsona.

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