“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
US covertly built Twitter-like service to stir anti-Castro dissent
US officials hoped to create “smart mobs” and trigger a “Cuban spring.”
by Joe Silver
The US government secretly masterminded the creation of a Twitter-like communications network in Cuba aimed at fueling political dissidence by sidestepping the strict Internet filtering systems in the communist nation.
The program, codenamed “ZunZuneo”—Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s song—was operated by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and was supported by foreign bank financing and the use of secret shell companies, the Associated Press reported Thursday. USAID, which is charged with stabilizing countries and delivering humanitarian aid to poor nations, describes its mission as working on “the same problems as our military using a different set of tools.”
According to the AP, the plan was to build up a simple “Cuban Twitter” platform run over the cellular network in order to bypass the Internet, which is tightly regulated by the Cuban Communist Party (currently led by former Prime Minister Fidel Castro’s brother, Raúl Castro).
Using a list of phone numbers provided by a worker at Cuba’s state-owned telecommunications company, Cubacel, USAID workers began to send out mass text messages over the platform in 2009. The initial messaging included “non-controversial content” such as “news messages on soccer, music, and hurricane updates” aimed at building up a user base for the free service, the AP reported.
Triggering a “Cuban Spring”
Once the network reached a critical mass of users, the plan was for operators to introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize “smart mobs” in hope of triggering a “Cuban Spring” (or, as a USAID document put it, to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society”).
At its peak enrollment, the ZunZuneo project had 40,000 Cubans sharing information over the network, although there was no indication that subscribers had any knowledge of US involvement. As quickly as it emerged, the program was abruptly canceled in mid-2012 due to a lack of funds, the AP said.
Responding to the AP’s questions about the program, USAID spokesman Matt Herrick commented, “USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency, and we work all over the world to help people exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms, and give them access to tools to improve their lives and connect with the outside world.”
The program’s legality has been called into question, as it remains unclear whether President Barack Obama authorized the covert foreign agency action as required by law, the AP said.
The head of the US government agency that oversaw the creation of a Twitter-like communications network in Cuba aimed at fueling political dissent against the communist government is expected to testify before Congress on Tuesday. One senator who will be hearing testimony next week has called the whole idea “dumb, dumb, dumb,” according to The Associated Press.