Snapchat, ZunZuneo, and Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Living as we do in the “Snapchat” – or even ZunZuneo – era, where the present can disappear or be buried by new material in 1-10 seconds, history may not stand a chance.  This is not a new phenomenon.  In 1999, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni did a survey which revealed that seniors at 55 leading colleges and universities were more familiar with Snoop Dogg (98%) than with James Madison’s role in writing the U.S. Constitution (23%).  Even if Snoop’s numbers have drooped in the intervening fifteen years, it’s hard to imagine that Madison’s have seen much of a revival.  If the present disappears in an instant, what chance does history have?

Forgive us, then, our faith.

A couple months back, we at the Center for Democracy in the Americas were contacted by Louis A. Pérez, Jr., asking if we might be interested in publishing his article “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.”  Dr. Pérez is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History and Director of the Institute for the Studies of the Americas at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and editor of Cuban Journal. His research and award-winning publications examine the history and identity of the nineteenth and twentieth century Caribbean, with a special focus on Cuba.

We readily agreed.

In “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,” Dr. Pérez offers a powerful case that this country’s fixation with determining Cuba’s destiny did not originate with the Castro Revolution of 1959.  Instead, it began much earlier, dating back to America’s preoccupation with its own manifest destiny, starting with the acquisitions of Louisiana and Florida, three centuries ago.

In his article, you will hear the ringing voices of U.S. statesmen and figures nearly lost to history.  These include: John Adams, the second president of the United States, who called Cuba “An object of transcendent importance to the political and commercial interests of our Union.”  His son, John Quincy Adams who, as Secretary of State, said Cuba was a “natural appendage” of the United States.  John Clayton, Secretary of State under President Zachary Taylor, who promised the “whole power of the United States would be employed to prevent . . . Cuba from passing into other hands.” Senator Robert Toombs, the secessionist Senator, who declared “I know of no portion of the earth that is now so important to the United States of America as the Island of Cuba is.” And President James Buchanan, who said breathlessly, “We must have Cuba. We can’t do without Cuba.”

To them and others, making Cuba an American possession was a strategic imperative and a psychological obsession.

With this chorus from the 19th Century, the voices we hear of statesmen and political figures in our own era now come across with greater fidelity.  The Cold Warriors of the past like CIA Director John McCone -“In my opinion, Cuba was the key to all of Latin America; if Cuba succeeds, we can expect most of Latin America to fall” – as well as his heirs of today, who refer to efforts by President Obama to relax travel restrictions as “appeasement.”

This leaves us, as Dr. Pérez writes, with a Cuba policy that is an “anomaly of singular distinction: more than 50 years of political isolation and economic sanctions, longer than the U.S. refusal to recognize the Soviet Union, longer than the hiatus of normal relations with China, longer than it took to reconcile with post-war Vietnam. Cuba has been under U. S. sanctions for almost half its national existence as an independent republic.”

History does have a powerful claim on this policy; a claim that long precedes the emergence of Fidel Castro and the success of the Cuban Revolution. To make this assertion is not to disenfranchise the claims of Cuban Americans or their very real grievances; no, it is to recognize that what happens between the United States and Cuba affects and implicates all of us.

Understanding the history may not actually make changing the policy any easier.  After all, the resilience of this failed, fifty year-old policy springs from what the hardliners have built around it – the network of political action committees, fraternal organizations, relationships, elections, appointments, websites and more -to keep it in place for them to control no matter what the rest of us may think or want for the future.

Yet, we have this abiding faith that it will be easier for policy makers to find the way forward if they better appreciate how we arrived at this place where we’ve been stuck.

We “Snapchat” Americans may not remember or know what to do with this history upon being presented with it.  But, there’s one thing we can promise you: the Cubans have never forgotten.


U.S. hoped to stir unrest in Cuba with a “fake Twitter”; collected private data

On Thursday morning, Associated Press published an investigative report about how the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funded and implemented a secret “fake Twitter” program in an attempt to stir unrest in Cuba. The project began operating out of Central America in 2009. The site, ZunZuneo — slang for the sound, or “tweet” of a Cuban hummingbird — sent mass text messages to Cubans, covering the origins of the service by sending from phone numbers in multiple third countries. The U.S. government initially sought to attract subscribers to ZunZuneo with “non-controversial content” such as sports and music, but later planned to introduce political content aimed at inciting “smart mobs” and civil unrest.

USAID contracted Creative Associates International, a DC for-profit company that “has earned hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. contracts,” to implement the platform. The money paid to Creative Associates, according to government data cited by the AP, was designated for an unspecified project in Pakistan.

ZunZuneo attracted 40,000 Cuban subscribers at its peak, none of whom knew that it was created by the U.S. government or that their private data was being collected with political intent. A contact from the state-owned cell phone provider, Cubacel, had clandestinely provided a list of hundreds of thousands of Cubans’ phone numbers to a Cuban engineer in Spain, which were then passed on to USAID. This action, and the use of a Spanish platform to send the unsolicited messages, appear to violate Spain’s privacy laws and a U.S.-European data protection agreement.

The operation compiled private data from subscribers, such as political tendencies, gender, age and receptiveness, in hopes that the information could one day be used for political purposes. USAID divided users into five segments for political purposes, with a democratic movement, labeled “still (largely) irrelevant” at one end of the spectrum and at the other end, supporters of Cuba’s government dubbed “Talibanes” — a term the AP called “a derogatory comparison to Afghan and Pakistani extremists.”

It is unclear whether the operation was legal in the U.S., as government agencies require congressional permission for covert operations. White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney, claimed that it was a non-covert, discreet development program debated by Congress and reviewed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). USAID Administrator, Rajiv Shah, seconded Carney’s statements, as did Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf in a press briefing on Thursday. Phil Peters, formerly with the State Department, discusses the distinction being made between cover and non-covert operations in The Cuban Triangle.

Harf said that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had not been made aware of the program. She also denied that the U.S. government was “generating political content of any kind on this platform” and that funding for the program was earmarked for Pakistan:

“It’s my understanding … that this was all ESF [Economic Support Funds] funding that was directed to Cuba. It was notified to Congress in a 2008 congressional notification titled ‘Outreach to New Sectors of Cuba Society’ for the amount of $6,850,000 for a number of programs, including this one.”

She also denied “the notion that [the U.S. was] somehow trying to foment unrest [and] trying to advance a specific political agenda or point of view.” She argued instead that:

“[The U.S. was] trying to expand the space for Cubans to express themselves. …The documents referenced in terms of smart mobs were not USAID documents. They were meeting notes between the grantee and the contractor. There was a USAID staff member present during this brainstorming session, but the documents in [the AP] story are not USAID documents.”

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s State Department and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, has called a congressional hearing on the program for next week, reports the AP. The Senator likened the program to Eisenhower-era policies, and said the program had a “clandestine nature,” remarking:

“On the face of it there are several aspects about this that are troubling. There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a U.S. government-funded activity. There is the clandestine nature of the program that was not disclosed to the appropriations subcommittee with oversight responsibility. And there is the disturbing fact that it apparently activated shortly after Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was sent to Cuba to help provide citizens access to the Internet, was arrested.”

The Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), in a press release condemning the program, said:

“The idea that USAID could do something so dangerous, wasteful, and contrary to the democratic principles it says it is trying to advance in Cuba – and do it off the books – is a clear demonstration of how dangerous its approach to “democracy promotion” and regime change can be. How many times do we have to go down the regime change route until we recognize that ending the embargo and freeing Americans to travel is the right way forward?”

The ZunZuneo program shut down in 2012 after unsuccessfully attempting to “cover [its] tracks” and distance U.S. ownership of the program by using independent front companies. As the AP reported:

“USAID was paying tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to Cuba’s communist telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies. It was not a situation that it could either afford or justify — and if exposed it would be embarrassing, or worse.”

In response to the article, USAID issued a statement (in full here):

“All of our work in Cuba, including this project, was reviewed in detail in 2013 by the Government Accountability Office and found to be consistent with U.S. law and appropriate under oversight controls. It is also no secret that in hostile environments, governments take steps to protect the partners we are working with on the ground. The purpose of the Zunzuneo project was to create a platform for Cubans to speak freely among themselves, period.”

Josefina Vidal, director of North America relations at Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations (MINREX) released this statement:

“The information in the AP article confirms Cuba’s government’s repeated denouncements. It shows once again that the U.S. government has not given up its subversive plans against Cuba, which aim to create situations of destabilization in the country to bring about change in our political system, and to which the U.S. continues to devote multimillion dollar budgets each year. The U.S. government must respect international law and the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and cease its illegal and covert actions against Cuba, which the Cuban people and international public opinion reject.”

To read the full investigative report by the Associated Press, see here.

CDA and investigative journalist Tracey Eaton collaborated last year on a project that examines USAID’s often opaque Cuba programs. To sign CDA’s petition requesting that the Obama Administration end USAID’s dangerous, wasteful and counterproductive regime change program in Cuba, click here.

Cuban scientists present successful results of diabetes treatment Heberprot-P in the U.S.

Scientists from Cuba presented the successful results of a new Cuban drug for treating foot ulcers associated with diabetes at two forums in the U.S., reports Cubadebate. Experts from BioCubaFarma’s Business Management Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) presented the results of the drug, Heberprot-P, at a technical seminar in Washington, D.C. organized by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and a conference on diabetic foot ulcer management in Los Angeles. Jorge Berlanga and Boris Acevedo, doctors who helped develop the drug, were among the presenters. According to Cubadebate, the drug has helped over 145,000 patients around the world and 28,000 in Cuba alone. Luís Herrera, CIGB’s director reported that the drug is registered in over twenty countries, including Argentina, Brazil, India, China, South Africa, and Ecuador.

As we reported in October, because the therapy was developed at an Institute which is an arm of Cuba’s government, it can’t enter clinical trials or be marketed in the U.S. without approval by the U.S. government. Political controversy ensued when U.S. Rep. Joe García (FL-26) wrote a letter to the Treasury Department urging that it grant a license so the drug could be tested in the U.S. The drug, to date, has not received approval for U.S. testing.

Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez meets with VP Bidenspeaks in Miami

During her third visit to the U.S., Yoani Sánchez, a blogger and vocal critic of Cuba’s government, met with Vice President Joe Biden, reports Café Fuerte. Vice President Biden posted on his Twitter account that he met with Sánchez “to discuss the challenges of civil society & free speech advocates in Cuba.”

Sánchez also spoke at the Hispanicize conference at the Intercontinental Hotel in Miami on Tuesday, reports the Associated Press. She spoke to the audience about her digital newspaper project, which she hopes to debut in late April or early May. At the event, she was awarded the conference’s “Latinovator” prize for her social media activism.


Cuba approves new foreign investment law

On March 29th, Cuba’s National Assembly passed new foreign investment legislation, reports Al Jazeera. While the official text of the new law will not be released until June when the law enters effect, as Cuba Standard reports, sources indicate that it is strongly similar to the draft bill released last week. The draft bill, as reported in our last Cuba Central, includes:

  • Reductions on taxes on profits to 15% and exemptions for companies from tax payments for the first 8 years;
  • Exempting foreigners working in Cuba from personal income tax;
  • Expediting the approval of foreign investment;
  • Strengthening legal protections for investors.

Cuban officials stated the bill is an “essential instrument [for Cuba] to consolidate its economic model and build a prosperous and sustainable socialism,” reports the Caribbean Journal. Marino Murillo Jorge, Vice President of Cuba’s Council of Ministers, stressed that foreign investment “does not mean giving away the country.” The wholesale sector was highlighted as an area opened up to foreign investment, reports EFE.

CubaDebate published a Q&A session regarding the new law with Déborah Rivas, Director General of Foreign Investment of MINCEX (the Ministry of Foreign Commerce), and Armando Cuba, Legislative Director of MINCEX. Rivas and Cuba state that Cuban employees of foreign companies will be compensated according to their skill and the labor requirements of their contracts.

The bill, which will replace 1995’s Law 77, is ambitious. It aims to increase economic growth to 7%, from the current level of 2.7%. Officials recognize this will require over $2 billion in foreign investment over the next two years. For now, private Cuban businesses remain excluded from the law, and foreigners will be prohibited from investing in cuentapropista operations. As for the law’s implementation, Richard Feinberg of Brookings writes, “the proof will be in the pudding, and investors will be watching closing for the fine print in the new regulations.”

Law enforcement reforms proposed

Cuba is currently working on a law to “institutionalize the functions and services of the police,” reports EFE. The law was presented last Friday by Cuban officials during a meeting held by the the Council of Ministers. According to Leonardo Valdés, the Deputy Chief of the Permanent Commission for the Implementation and Development of Reforms, the legislation includes regulations on police activity, including requiring identification upon arrest, as well as humane and respectful treatment. The law’s main goals are to “guarantee public order, defense, and the protection of citizen’s rights, in cooperation with governmental institutions, as well as social and economic entities, and citizens.” Organizations such as Amnesty International have long issued criticisms of Cuba’s short-term, arbitrary detentions and poor treatment of detainees and prisoners.

University in Central Cuba to launch course for self-employed

The state university in Las Tunas, a province in central Cuba, will soon offer courses on self-employment, reports Granma. The state newspaper wrote that the move is the Ministry of Higher Education’s “contribution” to the country’s ongoing process of economic reform, “in tune with what the country and the population need.” The course will cover subjects that include marketing, basic accounting, pricing, negotiation, finances, legal issues, management, and communications. According to Cuba’s National Tax administration Office (ONAT), there are 20,000 Cubans in Las Tunas who are self-employed in some capacity.

Last week, Granma reported that the University of Havana has launched a course for small business owners. The course, “Entrepreneurship in Cuba: The Creation and Development of Businesses,” began on March 3rd and ends on April 25th, and has 33 students.

In November, the Center for Democracy in the Americas hosted a conference on economic reforms that featured a number of self-employed Cubans.

Foreign tourism increases, while fewer Cubans engage in domestic tourism

Bloomberg reports that Cuba’s National Statistics Office has recorded a rise in the number of foreign tourists to Cuba. Compared to the same month last year, February 2014 visits by foreigners increased by 5.2%. The Ministry of Tourism in the province of Matanzas, home of the famous beach town Varadero, notes that 48.5% of foreign visitors to the region are from Canada, writes Café FuerteVaradero is attempting to meet tourism demands with increased development, especially through a new hotel, called Las Conchas, with 1,200 rooms that is set to open in February 2015.

Though foreign tourism has increased, the number of Cubans visiting Varadero has decreased by 47%, compared to the same period last year. Cuban tourists have historically spent $7.5 million CUC annually in Varadero, more than Cuban tourists spend anywhere else. The decline may be due to the limited income of Cubans, coupled with high prices at Varadero hotels. The National Statistics Office reports that in 2012 less than 10% of Cubans could afford to take domestic vacations.

Pay raises for athletes go into effect

Cuban athletes, coaches, and athletic specialists will begin to receive salary raises, as was previously announced by Cuba’s government, reports EFE. The salary hikes come as part of the economic reforms put in place by Raúl Castro. In Cuba, where the average salary is $20 a month, athletes will now earn $18-60 monthly depending on their rankings, achievements, and performance. The increases are subject to at minimum a 10% tax, reports El Nuevo Herald. Also as part of the reforms, athletic workers will be paid directly and in full any income earned through international competitions. Another reform that would allow Cuban athletes to be hired by international teams is still under discussion.


Ecuador to allow Cubans entry without invitation letter

Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry announced that starting April 1, they will no longer require Cuban citizens to obtain a letter of invitation to visit Ecuador as tourists for up to 90 days, reports BBC Mundo. In a statement, the Ministry explains that Ecuador began requiring the letter of invitation for Cubans in January 2013 in an attempt to “control migration flows in an efficient manner” when Cuba enacted immigration reform that lifted exit visa requirements. The statement said that the decision to both enact the requirement and lift it are decisions “based on the framework of excellent bilateral relations” and “mutual cooperation on diverse issues, one of which is migration, where we have reached various agreements to the benefit of both countries.”

From 2008 – 2013, Cubans were able to enter Ecuador without a visa, reports Progreso Semanal. In 2012, 21,480 Cubans traveled to Ecuador and approximately 40,000 Cubans currently reside in the country. Cubans have also used Ecuador as a entry point to begin a ground journey to the U.S. – Mexico border, as the AP detailed in 2012.

Brazil announces fulfillment of contracting quota for Mais Médicos program

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff announced Tuesday that Brazil fulfilled its goal of contracting 13,235 doctors, the majority of whom are from Cuba, for it’s Mais Medicos program, reports AFP. The Mais Médicos (“More Doctors”) program began in September of 2013 and contracts foreign doctors to help meet healthcare needs in the country’s impoverished and rural zones.

Nearly 7,400 Cuban doctors are currently in Brazil under the program.

Recommended Reading

The Cuban embargo: If not now, when?, The Economist

The Economist makes a case for ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba, arguing that four factors now undermine its effectiveness: economic liberalization, future options for foreign investment, political changes taking place in Florida, and business opportunities.

#CancelCastro: Why is U.S. Policy Toward Cuba So Absurd?, Matt Ford, The Atlantic

Exploding seashells, toxic cigars, a “stealth” version of Twitter. Ford explores U.S. attempts to undermine former President Fidel Castro and Cuba’s government, which range from the far-flung to the just plain bizarre, and asks, “As public opinion swings steadily toward bringing one of the Cold War’s last conflicts to a close, how long will it take for Washington to follow suit?

Cuba’s New Foreign Investment Law Is a Bet on the Future, William Leogrande, World Politics Review

Dr. Leogrande examines the historical context of Cuba’s newly approved Foreign Investment Law. He concludes that the law and the Mariel development project “represent major steps toward opening the Cuban economy to the world and restoring balance to its external sector. Yet the U.S. embargo stands as a serious roadblock to the vision of Mariel as a principal transshipment point for container traffic and a center for foreign investment.”

U.S. – Cuba Relations: A Document Archive, American University

American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS) has created a document archive on U.S.-Cuba relations for researchers, scholars, and policymakers: “From human rights to migration to environmental protection, the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies has assembled the best and most current resource materials available — over 160 documents in all.”

Cuba economic reforms a signal for Obama, DeWayne Wickham, USA Today

Wickham describes the recent, ongoing changes to Cuba’s economic system and argues that the Obama administration should pursue normalized relations with the island. “The Obama administration can’t expect to rally worldwide support for its condemnation of Russia’s intrusion into the affairs of Ukraine while it continues [its] effort to destroy Cuba’s economy,” he adds.

5 Questions with Senator Flake on U.S.-Cuba Relations, Mark Stout, War on the Rocks

Mark Stout poses five questions to Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ): 1. How the Senator came around to the “wisdom of normalizing relations with Cuba”; 2. What the best way to change U.S.-Cuba policy is; 3. Whether the U.S. and Cuba share mutual interests; 4. Whether “an opening to Cuba would subvert the communist system there”; and 5. What the Senator and President Castro drank during their meeting.

Russian drilling in Cuban waters presents problems for U.S., James Grippando, Houston Chronicle

James Grippando details how possible U.S. sanctions against Russia for its seizure of a natural gas plant in Crimea could accelerate Russia’s current exploration for natural gas in Cuban waters near Key West. In which case, the U.S. trade embargo could present huge obstacles and heighten “the risk of mishap” that could affect Florida. For more information on the Multi-Lateral Technical Operating Procedure agreement between the U.S. and Cuba which establishes a protocol for cooperative oil spill response, see here.

Recommended Viewing

Cuban Americans for Engagement Conference on U.S.-Cuba Relations, CAFE

Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE) held a conference in Miami on March 15th to discuss U.S.-Cuba relations, changes on the island, and possibilities for strengthening engagement. Video can be seen here.

The Faces of Cuba You Have to See, Peggy Goldman, The Huffington Post

The President of Friendly Planet Travel gained special permission to post to her blog photos from award-winning photographer Jeremy Woodhouse’s recent trip to Cuba.

CDA is hiring!hiring

Stephen Rivers Memorial Intern

CDA is offering a paid, full-time, ten-month position in Washington, D.C. for a uniquely qualified applicant with a special interest in Cuba, a thirst for activism, and an interest in pursuing a professional career in the foreign policy NGO community. The Stephen M. Rivers Intern will work side-by-side with CDA staff on projects that advance our goal of forging a new policy toward Cuba and the region. The intern will be paid a monthly stipend. Please see this posting for more information.

Summer Internintern

We are recruiting undergraduate and graduate students, as well as recent graduates, for a full-time summer internship. The intern will work directly with the CDA staff to assist with conference and delegation preparation, web site updates, drafting and editing publications, research support, and other tasks. Please see this posting for more information.


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