The Associated Press has a bombshell: The US Agency for International Development (USAID), which is responsible for administering American foreign aid and development funds, spent years covertly establishing an SMS-only social network in Cuba, in the hopes that it might develop into a “Cuban Twitter” that would undermine the island’s communist government.
The mobile social network, called ZunZuneo after the Cuban slang word for a hummingbird’s tweet, allowed people to follow each others’ updates and join groups to discuss mostly innocuous subjects like sports, music, and weather (link in Spanish). However, the USAID contractors running the network were also harvesting information about users and categorizing them by their “political tendencies,” according to the AP.
ZunZuneo eventually grew to about 40,000 users, none of whom had any idea that the social network was secretly funded by the US government. The network, which got going in 2009, was closed in 2012 due to a lack of ongoing funding—though the State Department did reportedly approach Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey for additional funds. Dorsey, who declined to comment to the AP, presumably said no.
Text messages are one of the only ways to connect Cubans to the wider world, since internet access there is rare, expensive, and severely restricted. Most Cubans have access only to email, which is heavily monitored, plus a limited “intranet” of sites that are authorized by the government. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are only available via covert satellite phones and black market internet connections that are granted to select officials.
Cuba has long cited US attempts to undermine its government as a justification for the internet restrictions. It will have even more cause now.
“The euphoria around social networks coexists with the risk of regime change operations, which have increased, as well as the threat to peace. These hazardous conditions make it necessary and urgent that we appropriate these platforms,” Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez said in 2011, according to a report in the Havana Times.
In a leaked video presentation to Cuba’s interior ministry in 2010, an internet expert said the government feared that the US was promoting social networks as a way to create an internet-enabled grassroots uprising like the kind that took place during Iran’s 2010 presidential elections. Indeed, the Associated Press reports that the US hoped ZunZuneo “might eventually trigger a Cuban Spring, or, as one USAID document put it, ‘renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.’”